In the second half of the nineteenth century, many of the most brilliant and ambitious minds in both Europe and America were bent upon solving the problem of capturing sound waves from the air and playing them back. Most of their efforts, including the earliest “phonautograms” from more than a decade before Edison’s invention of the phonograph, were either forgotten or lost to decay and degradation. In the past fifteen years, however, scientists and engineers, including the First Sounds collective, have located the surviving remnants of early sound recordings and devised ways to optically scan them and reproduce the sounds that they captured, revealing much of the auditory world of the nineteenth century and the pathways by which the now-ubiquitous technology of audio recording came into being.
Special thanks to the First Sounds collective, for recovering long-lost audio recordings and sharing their files freely with the global public, at www.firstsounds.org. All audio files used in this lecture are courtesy of First Sounds, except for the Edison/Wangemann cylinder recording from 1889, which is courtesy of the National Park Service and the Cylinder Archive.
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