Vor seinem Löwengarten,
Das Kampfspiel zu erwarten,
Saß König Franz,
Und um ihn die Großen der Krone,
Und rings auf hohem Balkone
Die Damen in schönem Kranz.
The voice of the father of the gramophone, Emile Berliner, is slightly muffled as he recites Friedrich Schiller’s ballad “Der Handschuh,” but his words represent what can be considered the oldest record in the world. They have been preserved and resurrected through technology at Indiana University Bloomington.
IU sound media historian Patrick Feaster stumbled on an 1890 image of Berliner’s recording in a German magazine earlier this year, when he was searching for another article in the more than century old copy of Über Land und Meer in the fourth-floor stacks at IU Bloomington’s Herman B Wells Library.
Watch a video about Feaster’s work:
“I was looking for a picture of the oldest known recording studio, to illustrate a discussion I was giving on my work with Thomas Edison’s recordings. I pulled the magazine off the shelf and while I had it open, I looked at the index and saw there was an article on the gramophone. I thought, ‘Oh, that’s a bonus,’” recalls Feaster, who is also an adjunct lecturer in the College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Communication and Culture at IU Bloomington. “So I flipped through and, lo and behold, there was a paper print of the actual recording.”
Feaster had created sound from such images before, a seemingly impossible task accomplished by scanning the record-shaped image, then unwinding — or “de-spiraling” — it, and linking the resulting sections to create a linear file that looks much like a modern-day audio clip. That file is run through specialized software to create a sound file.
Using this method, Feaster had already played back three paper prints of gramophone recordings before his February 2012 find in the Wells Library stacks. Feaster’s scholarly knowledge of one of the earlier prints helped him and colleague Stephan Puille of the University of Applied Sciences in Berlin recreate a likely history for this latest paper print.
One of the three prints Feaster had previously brought back to life was a German-language test recording Berliner had made in Hanover in 1889. Preserved by the Library of Congress, that print included Berliner demonstrating his recording process for a visitor named Louis Rosenthal, who was conducting photographic duplication experiments at the time.
“In that recording, Berliner tells us he’s making a record for Rosenthal to experiment with,” Feaster says. “He shares that they’re in this particular building in Hanover, and then he recites some poetry, sings a song, and counts to 20 in several languages.”
In the magazine Feaster discovered in the university’s main library, the accompanying text and the technical features of the print itself led him to believe his latest find was another recording Berliner had given Rosenthal at the same time.
“After weighing the evidence, my colleague and I concluded Berliner must have demonstrated the recording process for Rosenthal and then sent him home with the record they’d made together, plus a few others Berliner had prepared previously,” Feaster says. “If we’re right, the ‘Der Handschuh’ recording must be the older of the two recordings, making it the oldest gramophone recording available anywhere for listening today — the earliest audible progenitor of the world’s vintage vinyl.”
Even if the timeline is off, Feaster’s find nonetheless represents an extremely early gramophone recording and the oldest known recording of a complete literary work in the German language.
Perhaps the magazine was fated to wind up in Feaster’s expert hands.
“There are maybe 25 libraries in the world that have this issue. So it’s not a common item, but it isn’t exactly extremely rare either,” Feaster says. “But we’ve done what nobody else has done — we’ve played it back.”
Photo of Patrick Feaster by Ronda L. Sewald.
IU’s Media Preservation Initiative
Feaster works with IU’s Media Preservation Initiative, an effort that began in August 2009 to identify, document, and preserve more than 560,000 audio, video, and film items housed on the Bloomington campus.
These holdings are seriously endangered by degradation of the media, format obsolescence, and inadequate storage. Many of the recordings and films are highly significant for research and instruction, documenting subjects of enduring value to the university, the state of Indiana, the United State, and the world. It is now widely recognized that audio and video holdings must be digitized within an estimated 15- to 20-year time window if they are to be available to future generations of researchers. The Media Preservation Initiative has developed plans to build a media digitization center and is working with campus units to prepare and prioritize their holdings for preservation services as well as future access.
To learn more about the Media Preservation Initiative, visit www.indiana.edu/~medpres/.