An artifact at the Museum of Innovation and Science in Schenectady, New York has been selected for preservation in the National Recording Registry.
The Library of Congress recently tapped 25 pieces it considers “audio treasures,” including: Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814, Louie Armstrong’s “When the Saints Go Marching In,” Kermit the Frog’s “The Rainbow Connection,” and even public radio’s This American Life. It’s a solid list of household names – but predating them all is a single piece of tinfoil, the contents of which were rediscovered only within the past decade.
“To be recognized with these other important historical and cultural recordings is just amazing,” says Chris Hunter, vice president of collections and exhibitions at miSci. He says the museum has housed the "St. Louis Tinfoil" starting in 1978. It's thought to be the earliest known recording of an American voice, etched into existence with Thomas Edison’s phonograph in 1878. It’s a little over a minute long, consisting of a cornet piece and renditions of the popular nursery rhymes “Mary Had a Little Lamb” and “Old Mother Hubbard.”
Hunter says the man behind the recording was likely a friend of Edison’s named Thomas Mason. At the time, Edison contracted people like Mason to demonstrate his invention in exhibitions across the country.
“A piece of tinfoil would be wrapped around a cylinder, and then you would turn it with a hand crank," Hunter explains. "You would speak into this little impression, and your sound waves would vibrate this needle at the end of a diaphragm, and that needle would etch itself into the tinfoil.”
After recording, the exhibitor would go back and play the piece in front of the audience — holding down the diaphragm and turning the crank.
The sheer novelty of the phonograph wowed audiences in the late 19th Century, but Hunter says the tinfoil recordings were hardly captured “for all time” as advertised – they fell apart after a number of plays. In order to figure out what was on the St. Louis foil, miSci connected with physicists from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory to scan and digitize it in 2012.
And that’s where audio historian David Giovannoni came in. Given the phonograph’s manual, hand-crank operation, the scanned recording was riddled with speed variations that warped the pitch and clouded the overall sound. Giovannoni was brought in to help “straighten it out.”
“You don’t really know how fast that machine was moving at any particular time…You hear that constant [grinding sound], you know, like if you had an LP that was off-center, playing it on a turntable. It’s a slow ‘wow’ or warble," Giovannoni explains.
“The first track is the cornet. We have absolutely no idea what tune that cornet was playing. Fact is, we still don’t," he laughs. "But we now know what the tune sounded like. There’s software that will allow you to track the pitch and raise it or lower it microsecond to microsecond if you need to, to put it back into key, or put it back into pitch. So that was my contribution – to even out those warbles, to put the cornet back into B flat…’Old Mother Hubbard,’ you can now hear the exhibitor shout ‘Old Mother Hubbard’ rather than a squeaky sound, which was all we were able to hear before.”
The version you hear now finally came to fruition in 2019. That year, Giovannoni finished analyzing microsecond by microsecond, tracing whether Thomas Mason pushed the crank harder on the downstroke, or pulled harder on the upswing. In a way, perhaps those 19th Century ads were right: the St. Louis Tinfoil was recorded “for all time” – it simply required technology (and some good ears) to retrieve it.
“Sound recording is kind of cool, in that it’s probably the closest we can get to time travel," Giovannoni adds. "If you were to look at a photograph from the same year, 1878, it would sort of take you back in time, but it doesn’t have that sensory power that hearing conveys. Hearing puts you back in the room.”
The National Recording Registry was established in 2000, and with the new inductees, consists of 575 pieces. Hunter says MiSci is preparing to reopen this June. As staff receive the COVID-19 vaccine, the museum hopes to offer a full slate of in-person summer classes starting in July.