The brief history of recording technology includes a lot of dead ends. Lost experiments, failed prototypes, and other historical footnotes have languished in hidden collections for decades. New technology and innovative techniques have allowed researchers to breathe new digital life into these analog artifacts. Here are a few examples.
1. THE FIRST PICTURES FROM THE SURFACE OF ANOTHER PLANET
In 1975, the Soviet probe Venera 9 landed on Venus. With temperatures approaching 900 degrees Fahrenheit, Venera 9 lasted less than an hour. But the probe managed to send back two panoramic photographs—including telemetry and calibration data, which turned large sections of the historic pictures into apparently random black and white pixels. Researcher Don Mitchell reviewed the original digital data in 2004, using modern filtering and sampling techniques to fill in these gaps and produce clearer versions of these amazing images. Software has also allowed Mitchell to improve the color balance and clarity of other images returned by the Venera spacecraft both on the surface of Venus and in orbit around it.
2. THE FIRST RECORDING MADE FOR COMMERCIAL PURPOSES
In 1888, Thomas Edison toyed with the idea of selling a little doll that sang “Twinkle Twinkle” using a specially designed audio cylinder. It would’ve been the first commercial use of an audio recording, but the product barely made it off the drawing board (to the relief of millions of Victorian parents) because there was no way of mass-producing recordings—a new recording had to be made for each doll. A badly damaged prototype of the cylinder was scanned by scientists at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory; in 2011, Patrick Feaster, a media historian at Indiana University, succeeded in identifying its significance.
3. THE FIRST RECORDING OF A HUMAN VOICE
The Phonautograph, created in 1857 by Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville, recorded sounds by tracing a stylus’ vibrations on a soot-blackened sheet of glass. Several of Scott’s experiments survived, but there was never a way to play back the audio despite experiments starting in 1877. In 2008, the original phonautographs were discovered in French archives and Patrick Feaster translated the recordings into a format which standard sound-editing software could read. Since then, several of Scott's recordings from 1860 have been recovered, including the earliest recorded human voice (Thomas Edison’s phonograph wasn’t developed for another 16 years).
4. THE FIRST TELEVISION RECORDINGS
In 1927, John Logie Baird revealed the revolutionary Phonovision, which could record a live television signal on vinyl discs; his early television signals were low-frequency enough to be faintly audible and therefore could be picked up by a recording stylus. Baird never succeeded in playing the recordings back on what he dubbed his “Photovisor,” and later researchers mostly ignored them. In the 1980s, historian Don McLean used digital sampling to resurrect all of the five remaining Phonovision discs; he discovered that he could use software to correct errors introduced by the original recording equipment and create clear images.
5. THE OLDEST SURVIVING GRAMOPHONE RECORD
In 1890, Emile Berliner unveiled the gramophone, the prototype for today's turntables and one of the most iconic of all recording technologies. Most of his recordings were lost—until 2012, when Patrick Feaster discovered a photograph of one of Berliner's early test records in an 1890 magazine. Feaster scanned the image. He used software to translate the photographed record grooves into an audio signal and revealed Berliner's voice. The recording is one of the earliest phonograph recordings in existence, if not the earliest.
6. A RARE WOODY GUTHRIE LIVE PERFORMANCE
In 2001, the Woody Guthrie archives received a package containing two spools of magnetic recording wire containing a Woody Guthrie performance; only a handful exist. The man who recorded the concert had forgotten about the wires, which had been sitting at the back of a closet since December 1949. Unfortunately, the wire was brittle after 50 years of storage and snapped when the archivists tried to digitize it. It wasn't until 2007 that sound engineer Jamie Howarth and mathematician Kevin Short succeeded in restoring the recording, using proprietary algorithms to reduce background noise and timing errors. It won a special Grammy.