Soviet Venus Images, Don P Mitchell
Soviet Venus Images, Don P Mitchell

6 Rare Analog Objects Resurrected by Digital Technology

Soviet Venus Images, Don P Mitchell
Soviet Venus Images, Don P Mitchell

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.


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.


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.


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).


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.


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.


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.

Scientists Reveal Long-Hidden Text in Alexander Hamilton Letter

Age, deterioration, and water damage are just a few of the reasons historians can be short on information that was once readily available on paper. Sometimes, it’s simply a case of missing pages. Other times, researchers can see “lost” text right under their noses.

One example: a letter written by Alexander Hamilton to his future wife, Elizabeth Schuyler, on September 6, 1780. On the surface, it looked very much like a rant about a Revolutionary War skirmish in Camden, South Carolina. But Hamilton scholars were excited by the 14 lines of writing in the first paragraph that had been crossed out. If they could be read, they might reveal some new dimension to one of the better-known Founding Fathers.

Using the practice of multispectral imaging—sometimes called hyperspectral imaging—conservationists at the Library of Congress were recently able to shine a new light on what someone had attempted to scrub out. In multispectral imaging, different wavelengths of light are “bounced” off the paper to reveal (or hide) different ink pigments. By examining a document through these different wavelengths, investigators can tune in to faded or obscured handwriting and make it visible to the naked eye.

A hyperspectral image of Alexander Hamilton's handwriting
Hyperspectral imaging of Hamilton's handwriting, from being obscured (top) to isolated and revealed (bottom).
Library of Congress

The text revealed a more emotional and romantic side to Hamilton, who had used the lines to woo Elizabeth. Technicians uncovered most of what he had written, with words in brackets still obscured and inferred:

Do you know my sensations when I see the
sweet characters from your hand? Yes you do,
by comparing [them] with your [own]
for my Betsey [loves] me and is [acquainted]
with all the joys of fondness. [Would] you
[exchange] them my dear for any other worthy
blessings? Is there any thing you would put
in competition[,] with one glowing [kiss] of
[unreadable], anticipate the delights we [unreadable]
in the unrestrained intercourses of wedded love,
and bet your heart joins mine in [fervent]
[wishes] to heaven that [all obstacles] and [interruptions]
May [be] speedily [removed].

Hamilton and Elizabeth Schuyler married on December 14, 1780. So why did Hamilton try and hide such romantic words during or after their courtship? He probably didn’t. Historians believe that his son, John Church Hamilton, crossed them out before publishing the letter as a part of a book of his father’s correspondence. He may have considered the passage a little too sexy for mass consumption.

[h/t Library of Congress]

Scott Barbour/Getty Images
7 of History’s Most Unusual Riots
Scott Barbour/Getty Images
Scott Barbour/Getty Images

Some sociologists theorize that most rioters only join a crowd because the crowd is big enough to justify joining. But there’s always that one person who sparks the violence, and sometimes the reason for doing so can seem pretty baffling. Maybe a work of art scandalizes its audience, like the famous premiere of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. Or maybe it’s simply a notable act of disrespect, like history’s first recorded mooning (in Jerusalem in the first century CE). From balloonists to brown dogs to daylight saving time, here are seven weird reasons things just got out of hand.


The Darts Invitational Challenge, an international tournament held in Melbourne, attracted international gawking in January 2015 during the finals match between Michael "Mighty Mike" van Gerwen and Simon "The Wizard" Whitlock. The dart players weren’t making a scene, though: Rather, hundreds of spectators, many of them drunk and in costume, began throwing plastic chairs as they watched (pictured above). The reasons for the fight remain unclear; footage and photos show police trying to control adults dressed as Oompa-Loompas, numerous superheroes, and, in one instance, in a ghillie suit (heavy camouflage meant to resemble foliage).


In 1864, balloonists were the great daredevils of their time, and a major draw for eager audiences. That summer, Henry Coxwell, a famous professional aeronaut, was set to make an appearance for 50,000 paying ticketholders in Leicester, England. Unfortunately, a rumor spread that he hadn’t brought his biggest and best balloon to the event. After heckling from the crowd, Coxwell deflated his balloon, and attendees rushed it, ripping it to shreds, setting it on fire, and threatening to visit the same fate on Coxwell. Rioters even paraded the remains of the balloon through the streets of town, which briefly brought residents a new nickname: Balloonatics.


Toronto was still a pretty rough place in the 1850s, but not so rough that the circus wouldn’t come to town. As it turns out, circus entertainers were also a tough lot back then, so when a group of off-duty clowns spent an evening at a brothel popular with the city’s firefighters on July 12, 1855, tensions came to a head. Accounts differ as to who started the fight, but after one firefighter knocked the hat off a clown things escalated into a full-on rabble intent on chasing the circus out of town. Only the mayor calling in the militia put an end to the uproar, an incident Torontonians credit with kicking off much-needed local police reforms.


A painting by Charles Soubre of the Belgian Revolution
Charles Soubre, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Not many nations can claim their independence started with an aria, but for 19th-century Belgians sick of living under Dutch rule, an opera was just the right fuse for a revolution. To honor the birthday of King William I of the Netherlands, a theater in Brussels put on La Muette de Portici, about an uprising in Naples against Spanish rule. One song, "Amour Sacre de la Patrie" ("Sacred Love of the Fatherland"), aroused nationalistic passions so much that after the opera ended, the crowd began destroying factories and occupying government buildings. That was August 25, 1830; Belgium declared independence on October 4.


Hamilton fans, take note: Everyone’s favorite Founding Father once tried to quiet a mob bent on burning corpses. For centuries, anatomists and medical students relied on gruesome means to learn about the human body. Cadavers for dissection class often came from grave robbers, since the corpses of executed criminals were the only legal source—and they were in limited supply. In New York in 1788, rumors abounded that medical students were digging up paupers’ graves and black cemeteries. When one mob came after the doctors responsible, Alexander Hamilton tried, and failed, to restore the peace. The crowd swelled to about 5000 before militiamen intervened, leading to up to about 20 deaths.


Photo of an anti-vivisection demonstration in Trafalgar Square, London, to protest the removal from Battersea Park of the Brown Dog statue
The Anti-Vivisection Review, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Riots against the dissection of dead human bodies were not rare in the United States at one time. But on December 10, 1907, a thousand Britons marched in support of vivisection, or surgery on live animals. At the center of the controversy was a small terrier allegedly vivisected without anesthetic in 1903 during a class at London’s University College. Animal rights activists erected a statue to the dog in 1906, which enraged area medical students, and protesters tried to destroy the statue using crowbars and hammers. For the 1907 march, 400 mounted police were deployed to contain marchers. The statue became such a flashpoint (and an expense to local authorities) that in 1910, it was removed and melted down.


Palingtrekken (eel-pulling) was once a popular contest in Amsterdam, in which a writhing eel was suspended over a canal and hopefuls on boats would leap to snatch it as they passed beneath (usually landing in the water instead). However, “eel-pulling” was also illegal—the government deemed it a “cruel popular entertainment”—and in July 1886, police intervened at a particularly large gathering in the city’s Jordaan district. Civilians threw stones and bricks at police, and when some nearby socialist protestors joined them, a riot broke out that lasted for several days. The army finally intervened and opened fire on the protestors. All in all, 26 people died and 136 were wounded, but somehow, the eel itself at the center of the riots was allegedly saved and auctioned off in 1913.

A version of this story originally ran in 2015.


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