“Mary had a little Lamb,” “Old Mother Hubbard,” and a 23-second cornet solo are the highlights of what could be described as America’s oldest recorded music album. It’s not for sale on iTunes.
Thanks to technological advances, experts have been able to transfer a rough 78-second recording made in 1878 on a Thomas Edison-invented phonograph from flimsy tin foil to a computer. Experts believe it’s the nation’s oldest such recording.
“This is the first 1878 tin foil recording that we’ve played, you don’t get much closer to that moment of Edison’s transformative invention than this,” Dr. Carl Haber, senior scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory told ABC News. “If there are older ones, it would be just be by a couple of months.”
The recording, available to listen to online, opens with a cornet solo followed by a man reciting “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” followed by laughter, a recitation of “Old Mother Hubbard,” and finally more laughter and speaking.
In the history of recorded sound, captured audio that was playable was an enormous breakthrough. A French inventor named Edouard-Leon Scott de Martinville had previously recorded sound waves visually on paper in 1860, but was unable to find a way to play them back.
“Edison’s was the first sound recording which was itself playable at the time. From my point of view that was the transformative invention because sound recording became very useful once you were able to play it back,” said Haber.
“There was a lot of innovation and experimentation that went on in the 1880s and 1890s, that was the period of real growth. But the 1870s is when it first happened, that broke the field wide open” he added.
The Edison phonograph used a sheet of tin foil, a stylus and a hand crank to record sound waves generated by the operator’s voice. Such recordings were very fragile and could not be played back repeatedly.
“Every time you played it you probably damaged it a little bit,” said Haber. ”There are a few foils like this that are around, but this is the only one that has been played back to date.”
Museum of Innovation and Science curator Chris Hunter told ABC News the voice on the recording is believed to belong to St. Louis newspaper humor writer Thomas Mason, who often used a pseudonym I.X.Peck.
The digitized recording is scheduled to be played this Thursday during a presentation entitled “Found Sound,” at the GE Theater in Schenectady, N.Y.
The technology required to restore the audio was developed through a collaboration between the Optical Sound Restoration Project and the Library of Congress, and by research sponsored by the Institute of Museum and Library services.