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IRENE Seeing Sound Blog

A Visit from Edison




NEDCC recently had very special visitors to the IRENE Lab: Jerry Fabris, Museum Curator at the Thomas Edison National Historical Park and David Giovannoni, founder of First Sounds, a collaboration of experts dedicated to recovering audio from the world’s earliest sound recordings.

But the most distinguished visitors to the lab that day were some of the earliest examples of recorded sound.  Jerry brought a few of the Edison Park’s most historically significant recordings to NEDCC to be transferred using NEDCC’s IRENE optical approach.

(Click on the photos to enlarge.)


Three of these cylinders were made by the technical staff of the Edison Laboratory during the first year that the Edison Perfected Phonograph was in use.  Each was cut on a yellow paraffin blank – an early type of solid-wax cylinder not used after March 1889. Few other recordings are known to survive from this period, and together, they symbolize the beginnings of the worldwide recording industry.

 Edison1a   Edison2

 Curator Jerry Fabris hand-carried the Edison cylinders to NEDCC and packed them with great care.


Most of the cylinders had been digitized in 1995 on an Art Shifrin electric phonograph at the New York Public Library, but David and Jerry wanted to see if the IRENE platform could elicit better results from these unique and delicate recordings.

These unusual recordings presented some new challenges for NEDCC’s IRENE system. The yellow paraffin wax was too translucent for our laser focus sensor to detect, so we used depth information from the 3D camera to focus the images. The groove shape and depth of these experimental recordings were different than what we typically see from later recording processes, and even differed among this set.

 About the Edison American Exhibition Recordings 1888-1889

These early cylinder recordings represent a transition between the sound experiments of the Edison and Volta laboratories in the late 1880s and the blooming of the phonograph and cylinder record market in the 1890s. The Edison lab used these recordings to demonstrate their developments in the art and science of sound reproduction in the US and abroad. Even within the six cylinders scanned for this project, we saw considerable variation in recording technology.

Three of these were selected by the Librarian of Congress James H. Billington in 2002 to be among the first 50 recordings chosen for the National Recording Registry. Under the terms of the National Recording Preservation Act of 2000, the Librarian is responsible for selecting recordings annually that are "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."



Assisting Edison during these early recording sessions were Theo Wangemann and Walter Miller. They recognized the symbolic significance of these three cylinder records, which have long been carefully preserved together - stored in this small wood and glass display case at the historic Edison Laboratory in West Orange, New Jersey.






Edison’s Laboratory Music Room,
the same room in which this recording was made of Miss Effie Stewart
of New York City performing the Pattison Waltz on February 25, 1889.
(The Effie Stewart cylinder is in the center in the above photo of the display case.)


 [This sound clip is as seen/heard by the IRENE3D technology.]

About the Recording

“Miss Stewart was an accomplished singer—a soprano soloist at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York.  Her cylinder recordings were played at public exhibitions in the U.S., in October and December 1888; others were later sent for exhibition in England and Russia.  Stewart’s recordings for Edison rank among the earliest successful efforts to capture and preserve 'serious' vocal music.” (Bill Klinger, ARSC, National Recording Registry: 2002 Nomination for Edison American Exhibition recordings, 1888-1889.)

Our thanks to the Thomas Edison National Historical Park for inviting NEDCC to participate in this important work.

Learn More about the Thomas Edison National Historical Park

Photos and sound clip courtesy of Thomas Edison National Historical Park, National Park Service, United States Department of the Interior.

Top photo: Thomas A. Edison with "Perfected" phonograph and "yellow paraffin" cylinders at the West Orange Laboratory, June 16, 1888.  NPS photograph 14.650/003

Music Room Photo: Circa 1889, NPS Photograph 29.430/001

Display Case for Phonograph Cylinders: NPS Object EDIS 475
NPS catalog description: Display case for three early phonograph cylinders, one reproducer and one recorder.  Finished oak frame with glass front and glass sides.  Interior wood is painted off-white.  Top and sides are sealed shut with screws in bottom.  Case holds EDIS 564, EDIS 565 and EDIS 566: three "yellow paraffin"-type wax cylinder phonograph records from 1888 and early 1889 in good condition.  In front of cylinders in case are phonograph recorder EDIS 567 and phonograph reproducer EDIS 568, both from circa 1888 or early 1889.  Label in case reads: "Recorder and reproducer.  Three records made on the first perfected phonograph in 1888/9".  This case is described by Walter H. Miller in article: "The Talking Machine World", October 15, 1913, p. 13.  In January 2003 the Library of Congress included these three cylinders recordings in the National Recording Registry.

The Mystery Cylinder

His Name is Embroidered on My Mantle So Green...

This week, the Lab is trying out IRENE’s capacity to image cracked or damaged cylinders. Because of IRENE’s ‘touchless’ system, the recordings on cylinders that were thought to be unplayable are able to be safely imaged and turned into sound.

While a cylinder phonograph (spinning at nearly three revolutions per second) would probably damage the recording or the stylus on a cracked cylinder like this one, and probably not correctly track the groove across the crack, IRENE's contact-free approach allows us to bypass the damage and continue playing.



The Mystery

Almost all the singers and musicians featured in Middlebury College's Helen Hartness Flanders Ballad Collection have been identified and cross-referenced. But on several cylinders, such as this one, the singer is unknown.

This is a perfect example of IRENE's 'discovery' capability. We can learn what's on recordings that don't have descriptive metadata and haven't been played for a variety of reasons, including fragile or broken media, or a lack of playback equipment.

We have pieced together a transcription of the lyrics here:

As I went a-walking one evening in June
To view the fine fields and the meadows so green
I spied a fair damsel, she appeared like a queen
With her costly fine robes and her mantle so green

(My pretty fair maid?) will you come along with me?
I’ll dress you in rich attire, and married we’ll be (forgets words – oops!)
(restarts verse)

My pretty fair maid, will you come along with me?
We’ll join hands in wedlock, and married we’ll be
I’ll dress you in rich attire, you’ll appear like a queen
With your costly fine robes and your mantle so green

She answered – please no, sir, you must be refused
For I’ll wed with no man you must be excused
Through the green fields I wander for to shun all men’s view
For the lad that I love died in famed Waterloo

If you are not married, pray tell your love’s name
For I (was in the?) battle and I’d know the name(?)
Draw near to my garment and there you will see
His name is embroidered on my mantle so green

As always, thanks go out to Dr. Carl Haber and Dr. Earl Cornell of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Without them, these discoveries (and the discoveries yet to come) would not have been possible!

"When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd"

The NEDCC IRENE Lab has been working on more interesting recordings from the Carnegie Hall Archives collection, while continuing to fine-tune the 2D imaging capabilities in the Center's IRENE system.

Today’s audio clip is part four of an instantaneous lacquer disc recording of the CBS Symphony Orchestra, with Robert Shaw conducting Paul Hindemith's “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd,” recorded June 30, 1946 for radio broadcast.  Robert Shaw commissioned the work from Hindemith.  It is the complete text of Walt Whitman's poem which Hindemith set to music for chorus, soloists and orchestra.  The world premiere of the piece had taken place just a few weeks earlier on May 14, 1946 at City Center with Shaw conducting the Collegiate Chorale.




Yale University kindly loaned the Carnegie Hall Archives this photo of Robert Shaw and Paul Hindemith with the original score of "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd," taken in 1946. 


Photo Credit:
Photo 196
MSS 86, the Robert Shaw Papers
Gilmore Music Library, Yale University



A Note on Fidelity - The IRENE system is designed to safely photograph the grooves on the media, so it “sees” the grooves made during the recording, as well as any scratches, dust, or other degradation of the material. Variabilities between formats, and even between recording equipment within a format, present further challenges. As part of the grant project, the IRENE Lab has been fine-tuning their process to get the best possible sound out of the variety of formats and conditions they are sure to encounter when NEDCC's IRENE service becomes available to cultural institutions across the US.

About the Carnegie Hall Recording Company

The Carnegie Hall Recording Company is one of the most interesting and elusive aspects of Carnegie Hall's history.  It was founded by Len Frank in the 1930's in Carnegie Hall Studio 305-6. Frank had access to CBS microphones hanging in Carnegie Hall that were used for radio broadcasts from which he recorded various artists performing at Carnegie Hall. We believe he obtained access to the microphones through his associations with CBS or Bell Telephone Laboratories.  There was noWebLilacs2 official agreement with Carnegie Hall nor did Carnegie Hall receive payment for the recordings and to date nothing in writing has been located explaining in full the company or its relationship to Carnegie Hall.  The Carnegie Hall Recording Company studio at Carnegie Hall existed from the 1930s until 1960.

“How many recordings were made has not been determined,” explains Kathleen Sabogal, Assistant Director of the Archives at Carnegie Hall. “Most have disappeared. The Carnegie Hall Recording Company Collection consists of 38 lacquer discs with the Carnegie Hall Recording Company label that have been purchased on eBay or from private collectors.”

LEARN MORE about the Carnegie Hall Archives: 

Many materials, many hues . .

The NEDCC IRENE Lab is beginning to work on some of Carnegie Hall's materials as part of the pilot program for the grant. As the lab continues to work with the 2D imaging process, we’ll feature excerpts from disc recordings in our pilot collections.

Carnegie Hall's collections include a variety of recordings on the Carnegie Hall Recording Company label.  As our audio specialist was working with this one-sided lacquer disc, he discovered this intriguing clip from a radio broadcast on March 11, 1950 called "I Stand and Listen,"  featuring guest speaker Harold E. Stassen.


There is little information on the background of this particular recording, other than it was most probably part of the Protestant Church's efforts to raise money for European reconstruction after World War II.  There was a national effort to expand the fundraising around a common cause.  In 1950 they began using the name "One Great Hour of Sharing" and several radio broadcasts were produced.


When you listen, you'll see why we were interested in this clip. NEDCC (And the IRENE Lab itself) are currently housed on the 4th floor of a renovated historic woolen mill building in Massachusetts. Those background sounds could have been inside these very walls . . .



Reaching the 100th Flanders Cylinder

The IRENE Lab reached the 100th cylinder from the Helen Hartness Flanders collection at Middlebury College Special Collections this week.

One of the key goals of the grant project is to develop workflow protocols, estimating models, proposal templates, and deliverable specifications, so it has been great to have this large (and fascinating!) collection of cylinders to use in the pilot phase.

                                  dictaphone animation

                                                       IRENE/3D AT WORK!

The 100th cylinder in the Flanders collection is a recording of Mabel Wilson Tatro of Springfield, VT, made in appx. 1930, singing "Two Little Kittens."

LEARN MORE about how Helen Hartness Flanders  was able to collect the unique collection of New England folksongs and tales:

"In 1931 the collection of songs based on the previous year's efforts of Helen Flanders and George Brown, sponsored by the Vermont Commission, was published by the Stephen Daye Press. This volume, Vermont Folk-Songs and Ballads, included both texts and musical transcriptions of songs, although many of the transcriptions were based not on dictaphone recordings, but on songs taken down in musical notation by Brown during his early weeks of collecting in southern Vermont. Cylinder BoxesFlanders was responsible for notes and the general organization of the materials, while Brown, Elizabeth Flanders Ballard (Flanders' daughter) and George Brown’s mother, Alice Brown did the musical transcription.

During the summer and early fall of 1930, Alice Brown also did some field collecting. Her contributions to the archive are found in early publications. Some of the songs Alice Brown notated by hand from the singing of Mrs. George Tatro in July 1930, Flanders recorded on dictaphone in November of that year." - from the "Index to the Field Recordings in the Flanders Ballad Collection at Middlebury College, Middlebury, Vermont."

VIEW AN EXAMPLE of the handwritten notations by Helen Hartness Flanders and others as they documented song lyrics. (Courtesy of Middlebury College Special Collections)



1951 Radio Transcription - Boston Bookmobile Driver Interview!

Audio Preservation staff continues testing and refinements of NEDCC's IRENE 2D process this week.

The Boston Public Library provided this sample radio transcription on a 78 rpm instantaneous lacquer disc .


The recording is an interview by Boston's WNAC radio with one of the city's dedicated bookmobile drivers.

Classic audio snapshot of an era. (And classic Boston accent!)