Researchers at Berkeley Lab have turned the oldest playable recording featuring an American voice and the first recording of a musical performance into something you can listen to on your computer. The original recording was made in 1878 in St. Louis via a phonograph. The audio is 78 seconds long.
The newly-released audio starts out with a song solo, followed by a recitation of “Mary Had a Little Lamb” and “Old Mother Hubbard.” At the end of the recording, the man reciting the rhymes laughs after messing up the wording. Said John Schneiter of the Museum of Innovation and Science in Schenectady, “In the history of recorded sound that’s still playable, this is about as far back as we can go.”
The recording was made onto a piece of foil measuring 5-inches by 15-inches, which you can see represented in the diagram above. The foil was placed into the cylinder, which someone then cranked via the hand crank while the audio was spoken. Normally the foil would be destroyed after a few playbacks, making this an exceptionally rare souvenir.
The restored audio was played Thursday at the Museum of Innovation and Science, which owns one of the two other remaining playable foil recordings; the other is at the Henry Ford museum. Who’s the man in the recording? It’s believed to be Thomas Mason, a political writer for a St. Louis newspaper known by his pseudonym I.X. Peck.