It’s like the stuff of science fiction: An audio historian at Indiana University has figured out a way for us to hear the world’s oldest gramophone recording – even though the disc and the player have long since disappeared.
In 1889, Emil Berliner, the man who invented the gramophone, recorded a poem by Friedrich Schiller called “Der Handschuh” (the glove). It was probably done to demonstrate his newfangled contraption, and a year later, he was marketing the invention in a German magazine, which included a printed illustration of the disc. And that illustration, on paper, was enough for Patrick Feaster to actually play the long-gone recording.
Basically, he scanned the illustration into his computer, blew up the image so he could see the actual ridges and valleys in the record’s grooves, then “unspooled” them so that instead of forming a disc, those ridges and valleys instead became a straight line.
(Patrick Feaster, demonstrating how he converted the audio, from Reuters)
Once he had done that, he essentially had a waveform, something that his computer could then play back. This is what he heard.
I can’t make out all of it, but Berliner is very clearly giving the date (in German, of course) at the beginning: October 21, 1889. The rest is presumably the beginning of the Schiller poem.
It’s not the oldest audio recording in the world – that is an 1860 recording of a French inventor – also reconstructed by Patrick Feaster, and covered on Soundcheck in the past. But this is, as near as Feaster can tell, the oldest gramophone recording – the oldest extant member of the audio family that would eventually become the vinyl LP.