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80-Year-Old Edison Recording Resurrected 133

Posted by kdawson
from the wizard-of-menlo-park dept.
embolalia writes "An 80-year-old recording of a live radio broadcast featuring Thomas Edison has been uncovered and reconstituted. The recording was done on an obscure technology called a pallophotophone — Greek for 'shaking light sound' — that uses optical film to reproduce sound. The archivists who uncovered the canisters tucked away on a bottom shelf in a museum in Schenectady, New York (the city where Edison's General Electric was founded), did not have any machine to replay the films. Two GE engineers — working nights and weekends for two years — were able to construct a machine to replay the old tapes, recorded only two years before Edison's death." There's a video at the link, which may or may not contain some of the resurrected recording, but we couldn't get it to play from the Times Union site.
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80-Year-Old Edison Recording Resurrected

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    • by LoRdTAW (99712)

      Where is the audio of Edison, the last few seconds? What about Einstein were his recordings ripped too?

    • by PRMan (959735)
      Cue Edison's estate's lawyers in 3, 2, 1...
    • by Lead Butthead (321013) on Friday June 18, 2010 @02:04PM (#32615900) Journal

      Law firm representing NBC has filed suit alleging their client's copyrights have been violated for unauthorized rebroadcasting of the film content. "The audio programs recorded on those films are wholly owned intellectual properties belonging to our client, and their unauthorized rebroadcasting over the web is a willful theft of our client's intellectual properties. We fully intend to pursue this matter for the maximum payou... punitive damage under our law... ahm, the law."

      • But Edison is dead. His copyright should have expired with him. Or 14 years - whichever came first.

        And I'm not sure what the big deal is about optical recording on film? That's how most films of the 1920s, 30s, and 40s record their sound and is commonly understood. Maybe it took the engineers two years to decode the precise format.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by manofyunk (122268)

      Link to actual recording that was recovered:
      http://link.brightcove.com/services/player/bcpid1407952373?bctid=96943642001

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday June 18, 2010 @01:13PM (#32615002)

    You need the Flash 10.2 beta which accelerates pallophotophone files.

    • They've pulled the beta off of their website. They received a letter from the lawyers representing the estate of Edison. The lawyers clients are claiming ownership of the ip rights to all pallotophone codecs and pallotophone encryption/decryption algorithms. Said counsel for Bubba Edison - Mr. G. R. White, "Mr. Edison is seeking to ride on his Great Grandfathers coat tails -we aim to help him since that's the right thing to do - and the fact that he's paying us lots of money". Mr. White was not immediate
    • You need the Flash 10.2 beta which accelerates pallophotophone files.

      That's why I will only buy an Android phone!

  • by Black Parrot (19622) on Friday June 18, 2010 @01:14PM (#32615012)

    Weren't we talking about this in the chatroulette story a few days ago?

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Dishevel (1105119) *
      Were you holding your dick at the time. If so then yes that was Chatroulette you were on.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday June 18, 2010 @01:16PM (#32615056)

    This is neither the only recording of the broadcast, nor the best. A recording of the broadcast made by Edison's own technicians on his then-state-of-the-art 30 RPM radio transcription system was restored by Professor Mike Biel and released by Mark 56 Records three decades ago.

    • Re: (Score:1, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Even so, they mentioned seven canisters. Assuming 1000 ft canisters at what would be 24 FPS, we get approximately 77 minutes of audio? I don't know how long the broadcast was, but if that is longer than the broacast, perhaps it has additional material.

      If not, there still could exist other audio reels in this format someplace or other, which could benefit from the machine designed to recover the audio.

      • by spqr0a1 (1504087)

        The film has multiple (8-10) tracks per roll. This would account for the 20 hours of audio recovered.

  • by Gazoogleheimer (1466831) on Friday June 18, 2010 @01:18PM (#32615090) Homepage
    In some ways, it is interesting to think that it is technically easier to recover data from this sort of recording (and likewise, other analog systems like magnetic reel-to-reel tape and records) long after the means to recover the data are lost compared to more modern, computerized formats. I sometimes worry about the 'lasting-ness' of all my JPEG photography compared to my film negatives through this same issue.
    • It's probably true that analog formats are more lasting if they're forgotten about for a while, as in this case, because they degrade relatively gracefully.

      Digital media will be saved by digital virtues, principally the ease of making many perfect copies. You back up your JPEGs, right? Robust digital data is data for which there are many copies.

    • Re: (Score:1, Interesting)

      by MoeDumb (1108389)
      Very true. One need only think reel-to-reel audio tapes. Try finding a deck to play them other than refurbished units on Ebay. I'm currently converting my tapes to lossless audiofiles and storing them on an external HDD. Then back ups of that.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by phantomfive (622387)
      That is a silly worry. All you have to do is keep on top of it, and make sure you have a backup. You can change from tape to disk to usb key to whatever else comes along and not lose a single byte of data.

      Analog data, including your film negatives, degrade over time, and can never be recovered. If people care about your stuff, it's much more likely to be around a hundred years from now in digital format than in analog format.
      • by josath (460165)
        It's a valid worry. Imagine someone famous today made a recording of someone, but it was lost in a closet/attic/junkpile for 80 years. What are the chances of any DVD-R, USB flash drive, HDD made today having any chance of working in 80 years?
        • The chances are low. In fact, a DVD-R would almost be guaranteed to have been ruined by then. But really, the chances of something of any importance being stuck in an attic somewhere and not backed up somewhere are pretty low, too.
          • by sjames (1099)

            It happens all the time. Part of it is that something that seems unimportant at the time becomes considerably more valuable in retrospect. Just off the top of my head, such things have included a Benny Goodman album (wax cylinders found in a box in the attic), NASA space probe data and moon footage, and all of the early Dr. Who episodes (deliberately erased to save tape!).

            Add to that the army of attack lawyers that have sprung up since that time, all ready to sue anyone who even thinks about copying anythin

      • by mcrbids (148650)

        Analog data, including your film negatives, degrade over time, and can never be recovered. If people care about your stuff, it's much more likely to be around a hundred years from now in digital format than in analog format as long as it isn't locked up in DRM.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by smellsofbikes (890263)

      I sometimes worry about the 'lasting-ness' of all my JPEG photography compared to my film negatives through this same issue.

      What you need is a distributed, persistent, peer-to-peer file system. Luckily, just such a thing can be built cheaply, using commodity hardware and software. Include a 19 year old woman who isn't wearing a shirt in each of your photographs, and you can be guaranteed that you will have 100% retention and worldwide availability of your photography hundreds of years into the future.

    • by adolf (21054)

      Maybe.

      In support of your point: One of my prized archives is a CD, cut from a cassette tape, cut from a wire recording [wikipedia.org] of my dad's family when he was young.

      I remember being young myself as we all gathered around the old wire recorder that Grandpa had produced from the nether regions of the basement. He turned it on, and we waited a few minutes for the tubes to warm up, and then he engaged the play mechanism. Lo! Sound came forth from 40 years prior. As far as anyone could remember, nobody had ever list

  • Scanner (Score:5, Insightful)

    by grahamsz (150076) on Friday June 18, 2010 @01:19PM (#32615106) Homepage Journal

    Is there any reason you wouldn't just make a high resolution scan of the film and attempt to process it from there? Certainly I understand the satisfaction in making a physical machine, but doesn't that risk a lot more damage to the original media?

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by slimjim8094 (941042)

      My thoughts exactly. IIRC, for the old wax-cylinder recordings that wouldn't survive a playback, they used a laser "stylus" to measure the exact depth and variation of the grooves down to fractions of a mm, and were able to play it back no problem. They got a higher-quality sound off the drum then even the destructive stylus would've managed.

      That's the thing about digital formats going obsolete - as long as the information can be represented as a series of bits on whatever the current computer is, anybody c

      • by grahamsz (150076)

        Yes and no. While you can do it with a $200 laptop, the skills required to decode something like an mp4 file are going to be far in excess of what these two guys needed.

        Fortunately the file specificiations will hopefully be preserved digitally too

        • by c++0xFF (1758032)

          So ... put it on the internet. Somebody will probably do it for free, open source.

          A $100 prize to the first person or best reproduction wouldn't hurt, either.

          On the other hand, building the machine was probably the whole point, and hopefully quite rewarding for these engineers. That's the same reason someone would probably decode a digital version for free: it's a challenge that's very unique and fun to solve.

        • Re:Scanner (Score:5, Funny)

          by CohibaVancouver (864662) on Friday June 18, 2010 @02:38PM (#32616532)

          the skills required to decode something like an mp4 file are going to be far in excess of what these two guys needed

          Yes and no... In 100 years it will probably go something like this:

          "Hey, Computer."
          "Yo."
          "I found this 100 year old computer file. Can you decode it for me?"
          "Sure, just a second."
          "Done. It appears to be a video of a caucasian human singing a song from the year 1987."
          "Really? What song?"
          "Never Gonna Give You Up..."

          I suspect 100 years from now reading the data off a thumb drive, CD or DVD will be a bigger challenge that actually decoding the file...

          • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

            by mangu (126918)

            I suspect 100 years from now reading the data off a thumb drive, CD or DVD will be a bigger challenge that actually decoding the file...

            100 years from now we will probably have desktop universal disassemblers that can record the position of every atom in an object. That will take care of thumb drives. CDs and DVDs will be even easier, use that high-resolution ultraviolet scanner to read the surface.

    • Re:Scanner (Score:4, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward on Friday June 18, 2010 @02:06PM (#32615928)

      Is there any reason you wouldn't just make a high resolution scan of the film and attempt to process it from there? Certainly I understand the satisfaction in making a physical machine, but doesn't that risk a lot more damage to the original media?

      I used to live down the street from John Schneider (one of the engineers who worked on this). He's actually a multi-millionaire who started his own company a few years back and it's pretty cool that he's still getting his hands dirty with things like this.
      Here's a bio.. http://www.spoke.com/info/pOzZMi/JohnSchneiter

      Although he's a really smart guy, he's not really super computer savvy - as is common for a lot of MechEs so it makes sense that he would try to solve this problem using hardware since that's what he knows. Naturally myself (and likely most software guys) would get a high resolution scanner out and write some code to "playback" the stored audio. I've seen similar applications for playing old records that don't require actually touching the record with a needle. Regardless, you really only need to play it once and digitize the audio so the concern of multiple playbacks ruining the film isn't that big of a concern.

      All in all a really cool hack!

    • by dubbreak (623656)
      Exactly. It's optical. If it was magnetic you'd probably need some specialized head to read it, but since it's optical you can just use a scanner then go straight to processing it with software. Seems like the most cost effective and easiest solution. Not as cool as building a machine, but what's the point?
    • by jnaujok (804613)

      The machine they built winds the film onto reels, and then plays it back in front of a light source, that's shining onto some sort of photocell that re-creates the sound. The sound is clearly put into a digital computer feed (note the obvious sound wave on the monitors in the background of the video.) Likely, each reel was only run through once, or maybe twice, and converted into a useful, digital version.

      In other words, they scanned the film and then decoded it.

      In fact, I wouldn't doubt that they duplicate

    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by Bryan3000000 (1356999)
      My thoughts as well. However, judging by the opinions of the archivists at the Library of Congress, photographic media are a terrifically better long-term preservation strategy than magnetic tape or magnetic media of any variety: http://www.boingboing.net/2010/06/09/gallery-digitizing-t.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed:+boingboing/iBag+(Boing+Boing) [boingboing.net]

      It seems to me that you could get incredible fidelity and preservation characteristics for audio recordings by using ph
    • by Trisha-Beth (9231)

      You still need all the mechanism of the machine to transport hundreds of feet of film past the scanning head at a constant speed without breaking it and keeping it nicely spooled. If the 35mm film had sprockets perhaps they could have used the mechanism from an existing 35mm film projector instead of having to make their own constant speed mechanism for the sprocketless film.

      The phototransistor (photodiode, CCD etc) method is a long established technique for playing back an optical analog sound track from f

  • go kdawson (Score:2, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward
    There's a video at the link, which may or may not contain some of the resurrected recording, but we couldn't get it to play from the Times Union site.

    Why am I not surprised that kdawson wasn't able to figure out how to take the javascript popup link and add it to the base url of the Times Union site?
  • and you'll be reading a story about engineers building a machine to play old 8-Track recordings, or old CD's they found in the bottom of a desk in a museum.

    • by grahamsz (150076)

      I doubt that. The widescale use of technology will pretty much ensure it can be read well into the future.

      Granted i have nothing in my house that would play an 8 track recording or a vhs tape, but I could find one in a day or two on ebay or craigslist.

      I'm sure in 30 yrs, CD players will be far more obtainable than 8 tracks are now

      • My parents have both, but the 8-track player has been sitting in my dad's shop office for a few decades. It may need to have a couple of kilos of sawdust and spiderwebs blown out of it.
    • by Cwix (1671282) on Friday June 18, 2010 @01:34PM (#32615366)
      Dont worry, those engineers obviously spent two years working on breaking Edison's DRM, I hear hes planning on returing from the dead, and suing for 150k.
      • I believe that is quite possible. When you play his recording backwards, I'd swear I hear Edison saying "worship the devil!" I could be hearing things, but you never know . . .
      • by Ogive17 (691899)
        150k per person who listened to it
  • Oct 21, 1929 (Score:5, Insightful)

    by smitty97 (995791) on Friday June 18, 2010 @01:27PM (#32615244)

    And a week later, the markets crashed.

  • by linebackn (131821) on Friday June 18, 2010 @01:29PM (#32615280)

    1929? So the entirety of the content from those things would still be under copyright, right?

    Eh, torrent link plz.

  • by erroneus (253617) on Friday June 18, 2010 @01:31PM (#32615304) Homepage

    It is during instances and moments like these that we should be reminded of exactly how bad it is to protect content and patent data processing methods. These are the surest ways for us to lose the historical data we are creating today. Already, losses of great works have been lost due to lack of republication because copyright has not expired before the last copies were lost forever. If it were not for a few brave individuals, Disney's "Song of the South" would be lost forever today as they will never EVER publish it again and it is not available for sale anywhere.

    And more and more, we are seeing technologies phasing out... floppy disks... anyone got an 8" floppy drive laying around? What about 5 1/4" No? I still have a few USB 3.5" floppy drives but that was only to make a floppy disk RAID for fun. We might find some paper tape somewhere in an archive out there in a dark closet, but will we find a reader for it?

    The push for "open formats" is precisely about better guaranteeing that data will be available in the future and so few people are willing to listen or understand. "DOC" is the standard right?

    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by kommisar (166705)

      Patent rights only last 20 years from filing. Copyright however, is much longer. Don't get your IP protections schemes all tied in a bunch!

    • Old file formats are a problem for individuals too. I booted up an old computer and copied some old stories and papers I had written which were in Multimate or ProPrint format. I was lucky enough to be able to recover the text of one of them, but some of the others might take a lot more effort. If these were in OpenDocument format, I'd be able to decompress them and pull the XML-text (worst case scenario). Since they are long-forgotten proprietary formats, though, I'm forced to piece together what text

      • Re: (Score:1, Informative)

        by Anonymous Coward

        Old file formats are a problem for individuals too. I booted up an old computer and copied some old stories and papers I had written which were in Multimate or ProPrint format. I was lucky enough to be able to recover the text of one of them, but some of the others might take a lot more effort. If these were in OpenDocument format, I'd be able to decompress them and pull the XML-text (worst case scenario). Since they are long-forgotten proprietary formats, though, I'm forced to piece together what text I can see and hope that the gobbledygook is just formatting information being lost. (Of course, if someone knows how to import Multimate or Proprint into OpenOffice.org, I'd love to hear it.)

        I believe that Multimate was one of the filters supported by StarOffice 5.2. You should still be able to find a version of it as Sun offered it for free (as in beer). You can then save it as a star office format file which openoffice can read in directly.

        This is how I was able to bring in my wife's Masters Thesis which was written in Word Star.

    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by kevinmenzel (1403457)
      Song of the South was released commercially in the UK on PAL VHS. So by brave souls do you mean "the people who bought it when it was commercially released on home video who happen to not be American?"
      • by swb (14022)

        AFAIK it was also released on LaserDisc in Japan. I'm pretty sure I've seen it up on EBay in the past and I'm sure there are people selling laserdisc dubs onto DVD.

        • by drinkypoo (153816)

          AFAIK it was also released on LaserDisc in Japan. I'm pretty sure I've seen it up on EBay in the past and I'm sure there are people selling laserdisc dubs onto DVD.

          It's usually fairly easy to find a torrent and it's often posted to that other place we won't talk about. IIRC I have an SVCD.

      • by erroneus (253617)

        Yes, I am quite aware of the formats it was released in and where. But it will never be released again. Never on DVD, never on Bluray or in whatever format that may come next. So how long ago was it that it was last published? In that format, how long will a viable copy last or be available for playback? Beginning to see my point?

        • Do you seriously believe that it has not been digitized by many people and stored in hundreds of different places?

          • by erroneus (253617)

            I seriously believe it has been. I have it archived myself. But that is an exception, not the rule. And that was my purpose for using "The Song of the South" as an example. If Disney had their way, we wouldn't be able to protect such works through copying in this way. The unfortunate reality is that many other important works are lost.

    • Already, losses of great works have been lost due to lack of republication because copyright has not expired before the last copies were lost forever.

      Wouldn't losing a loss be a good thing?

  • Link to the audio (Score:5, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday June 18, 2010 @01:36PM (#32615382)
    • Thanks! (Score:3, Informative)

      by SuperKendall (25149)

      Finally, the full audio. Really exciting to think of all the audio they can save this way, and bring forward for more permanent storage.

  • Does this mean that the true anolog audio buff should only listen to pallophotophone film recordings? Because I think exposed film may be the best way to create true anolog audio reproduction. Records probably miss a huge portion of what this film would capture.
    • by u38cg (607297)
      Don't joke. Electric recording was invented in 1926, and resulted in reasonable sound which we would consider "not awful" today, but this recording has far superior sound quality to 78 records of that era.
  • I remember some long-ago speculation that drying paint could capture sounds. Some guy was going find Michaelangelo coughing or something like that. I couldnt find a reference on google.
    • I remember some long-ago speculation that drying paint could capture sounds. Some guy was going find Michaelangelo coughing or something like that. I couldnt find a reference on google.

      I'm pretty sure that's some April Fool's Joke by a scientific journal (Nature?) being run amok by "journalists".

  • The following are recordings (even older) that Edison made, but not of himself. Still, very interesting:

    Ada Jones [archive.org]
  • by Animats (122034) on Friday June 18, 2010 @02:17PM (#32616150) Homepage

    Link to actual project at General Electric [gereports.com], including access to the Edison audio.

  • by ryanleary (805532)

    A more informative video can be found here [youtube.com] with one of the engineers describing its function while it plays back some old recordings.

  • Nice recovery job but some talkie movies were already in theaters by then.
  • "Can you hear me now?"
  • Edison was a scam artist that took credit for other peoples work. His own personal work was mediocre at best. Now, if this was a lost Tesla recording or something, THAT would be news worthy.

    And ya, i expect to be modded down, but if you are objective and do some research, you will see I'm right.

    • by Smallpond (221300)

      Edison was a scam artist that took credit for other peoples work. His own personal work was mediocre at best. Now, if this was a lost Tesla recording or something, THAT would be news worthy.

      And ya, i expect to be modded down, but if you are objective and do some research, you will see I'm right.

      No. If you are objective and do some research, and then make a lot of money from it like Edison did, you can be sure that some worthless troll will come along and claim that you stole their ideas.

      • My point was that Edison was a business man first, and a poor inventor second. Who really cares about the historical impact of a business man's artifact?

        That he continues to get direct credit for his employees work is dishonest.

        Finding some history for a true inventor like Tesla would be far more news worthy. ( Or a host of others like Bell if you don't like Tesla, its just that Tesla got screwed by Edison so its appropriate to have used his name here )

        • Yes, Edison did steal from Tesla. I would not say he was a "poor" inventor. He had unorthodox methods that worked really well in some fields. He's known for light bulbs and the phonograph, but what he really invented was the Nickel-Iron battery. These batteries are utterly amazing. They have about 2x the energy density of lead-acid (which is not impressive compared to li-ion), but many are still working today (100+ year life times). As you can probably tell, it's likely that NiFe will play a big role in our
  • Aren't audio tracks still encoded as an optical trace on 35mm film? I mean, sure, different format, but the basic principle is not that different.

  • So thats what the guy who screwed over Tesla sounds like.
  • It's neat and all, but wouldn't it have been much easier to just scan the film and create audio from the waveforms?

  • They spent 2 years resurrecting the audio because it was in an obsolete nonstandard format that not everyone can play and then they put that audio on the Internet in an obsolete nonstandard format [Flash] that not everyone can play!

  • Obscure technology? HUH? Optically recorded audio tracks have been in use as long as movies with soundtracks have been around. The easiest way to reproduce the soundtrack was to have it on the film - that's why. Surely there have been magnetic strips in use as well, but optical track on the edge of the film is in widespread use. Even for digital sound [wikipedia.org]! Of course the recordings in question weren't in a standard physical format, but I bet you could coax a contemporary movie projector to play those, as long as

  • Two GE engineers -- working nights and weekends for two years -- were able to construct a machine to replay the old tapes

    This surprises me some. At work we have been tasked with retrofitting a device manufactured by GE (technically, a company GE bought), and need to sign an NDA with them to obtain critical specs on the device. So far it has taken 8 months and counting for them to even send the NDA for us to sign, not to mention numerous manhours playing phonetag and going up the chain of supervisors (and ev

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