These are prints made on paper that are actual sound recordings. One, from 1806 is the “oldest known inscription of audio ‘waveforms,’ not recorded automatically but drawn by hand”. I have a project on hold with artkillart who first told me about the possibilities of printing an audio record onto paper/card, and finding this today reminded me that we still need to make that work. For now, listen and marvel at this extraordinary archive of audio preserved in book form.
This isn’t just a pretty picture. It’s a bona fide sound recording—a “record.” In fact, it might arguably be the oldest “record” in the world that you can listen to today!
Let me clarify—I don’t mean it’s the world’s oldest sound recording. But nowadays when people use the word “record” colloquially to refer to sound media, they typically mean the specific format that includes LPs, 45s, and 78s—that is, the kinds of grooved disc you’d play on a “record player.” Technically, these “records” are based not on the phonograph Thomas Edison unveiled in 1877, but on the gramophone invented by Emile Berliner in 1887. The gramophone disc dominated the worldwide recording industry for much of the twentieth century and still has currency in the twenty-first, for instance in the art of turntabling. The distinctive crackle of its surface noise is stamped in the popular imagination as the quintessential “old recording” sound.
So what are the oldest known “records” in this sense—that is, the oldest known gramophone recordings, as opposed to the oldest sound recordings in general? The first commercially available gramophone discs were manufactured and released in Europe in the summer of 1890, and numerous examples are available for listening (here, for example). In addition to these, a few experimental gramophone discs from 1887 and 1888 survive at the Smithsonian Institution and elsewhere, but attempts to play these haven’t been very successful, and no intelligible or identifiable content has been recovered from them to date. Finally, some other very old gramophone recordings have come down to us only in the form of prints made on paper,like the one on the fourth floor of Wells Library. This isn’t a unique situation. Many important early motion pictures that didn’t survive in the form of actual films were nevertheless preserved as paper prints deposited for copyright registration purposes with the Library of Congress and later retransferred to film for projection and preservation. Similarly, I’ve found that paper prints of “lost” gramophone recordings can be digitally converted back into playable, audible form.
Some Other Early “Recordings” at IU – Listen to these on their website
Here are a few other snippets of audio obtained from high-resolution scans of books in the IU Bloomington Libraries.
Lilly Library: Q113 .Y77 (two copies, one previously owned by Ian Fleming)
Thomas Young, A Course of Lectures on Natural Philosophy and the Mechanical Arts(London: Joseph Johnson, 1807), Volume 1, Plate XXV, Fig. 353.
Significance: Oldest known inscription of audio “waveforms,” not recorded automatically but drawn by hand. (The book is dated 1807, but the engraving itself is dated 1806.)
Wells Library (oversized): Q1 .S45 n.s.,v.37 1877
“The Talking Phonograph,” Scientific American 37 (December 22, 1877), 384-5, on page 384.
Significance: Print made from a plaster cast of a fragment cut from the sample tinfoil recording Thomas Edison used to demonstrate his phonograph for an audience outside his laboratory for the first time. I’ve inserted silences to represent the missing content (which is a majority of it). The direction of recording is anybody’s guess, so what you hear might be played backwards.
ALF (Geosciences): Q1 .A5 ser.3,v.16
E. W. Blake, Jr., “A method of recording Articulate Vibrations by means of Photography,” American Journal of Science and Arts 116 (July 1878), 54-59, on page 57.
Significance: Oldest known publication of a recording of recognizable phrases in the English language (“Brown University”; “How do you do?”); also the oldest known publication of a photographic recording of airborne sounds (Image above)