Looks like “Mary Had A Little Lamb” and “Old Mother Hubbard” were the world’s first recorded hits… by default that is.
Along with the sound of a man laughing, and someone playing cornet, the recitations of those old nursery rhymes have been discovered by a team of scientists from Berkeley, California to be the first of the world’s oldest playable music.
The Atlantic reports that not only did the team from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory discover the world’s oldest recordings, but they were able to make them playable through cutting edge technology. First recorded and captured by a Thomas Edison-invented phonograph in St. Louis in 1878, the recordings were made onto a fragile piece of foil.
So fragile that there was actually no device that could play the foil recordings without destroying them in the process. The Californian team, led by physicist Carl Haber were able to create a digital replica of the foil recording’s topography, and by a process of physical modelling and mathematics, were able to translate the sounds of the original and recreate how a needle would have played the original grooves.
Meaning they were able to play the oldest recorded sounds on record “without ever physically having to touch them,” explains Haber. “That’s kind of the key issue, because these things are so old and fragile and torn-up, broken, and delicate that in many cases it just would not be possible to play them back in any of the more standard ways.”
“It doesn’t matter anymore that you don’t have the exact machine that was used,” Haber continues. “Our technology, since it’s based upon modelling and simulation, it can accommodate anything really, any kind of mechanical recording. That’s why we’ve been able to fill in the picture so completely.”
Haber and his team premiered their findings and processes to an audience of about 200 people at the GE Theatre in Schenectady, New York recently to demonstrate the fidelity of their restoration. “This is the oldest recording in the United States and anywhere in the world that was made as a reproducible recording that’s ever been played…” says Haber.
Edison’s phonograph invention was a curious device that let the user speak into a funnel, while turning a hand crank that would ‘write’ the inputted sound onto the foil into grooves, though the design for playing back that foil proved to be the invention’s shortcoming.
You can have a listen to the restorations of the world’s oldest recordings below: