Congratulations if your vintage vinyl collection boasts a rare first-pressing of Captain Beefheart's "Safe As Milk." However, no one's vinyl collection is more vintage than the crate diggers at my alma mater, Indiana University.
Earlier this year, Patrick Feaster , a sound media historian at IU, stumbled across an image of a recording by Emile Berliner, father of the gramophone. Feaster found the image in a German magazine from 1890 while searching for a different article at the Herman B. Wells Library in Bloomington.
"I looked at the index and saw there was an article on the gramophone. I thought, 'Oh, that's a bonus,' " Feaster said in an IU press release. "So I flipped through and, lo and behold, there's a paper print of the actual recording."
The print was of a recording of Berliner reciting Friedrich Schiller's "Der Handschuh."
But how does one create an audio file from an image of a record? Feaster employed a method he's used before. First, he scanned the record-shaped image and unwound or "de-spiraled" the sound data. Next, he linked the sections together and ran them through specialized software to createa linear file similar to contemporary audio files.
Feaster has used his 'scan and de-spiral' technique three times before his current discovery. One of his previous resurrections was an 1889 recording of Berliner demonstrating his recording process to Louis Rosenthal, a man conducting photographic duplication experiments at the time.
Feaster said the text and technical features of his latest discovery led him to believe the print just might be the oldest gramophone audio on record.
"After weighing the evidence, my colleague and I conclude 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 said. "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."
Until we all get our hands on Berliner's recording, how about we take "Safe As Milk's" lead-off track, "Sure 'Nuff 'N Yes I Do" for a spin, shall we?
Credit: Indiana University