Monday, April 16, 2007

Early Recorded Sound

Our links to the past are tenuous. It is difficult to imagine the thoughts and feelings of those who lived long ago. Many civilizations have left nothing but scattered artifacts. When written records are discovered, they often assume a perspective and knowledge that is now unavailable, making it difficult to grasp their meaning. Ancient art is enlightening, but limited. Frequently, it is idealised scenes that are portrayed, leaving us little insight into daily life.

Even the more recent past can be hard to understand. We may have detailed records of the events that took place, but it is far more difficult to get a good perspective on what life was like. Music can be a useful tool for gaining this type of insight. It is also difficult to preserve. This is one reason why I am fascinated by early sound recordings. They provide an unique glimpse into the past.

One good place to hear some of the oldest available recordings is Among its treasure is the oldest playable sound recording, an 1878 recording used in an experimental talking clock. They also have many other recordings from the late 1800's and early 1900's.

I'm not just interested in the sounds. I also try to imagine what it was like to experience or work with this technology when it was new. It's hard to imagine, in our modern world, the delight of hearing sound mechanically reproduced for the first time.

See also the Edison National Historic Site collection of sounds.