Queen Victoria, Abraham Lincoln, Florence Nightingale and other characters from history may soon be able to speak again, as scientists perfect techniques to recover the sound from recordings that are far too delicate to be played.
By Maggie Shiels
In San Francisco
In the corner of a California university laboratory, two men are battling against time to perfect a machine that will read old recordings - using special microscopes to scan the grooves - and software that can convert those shapes into sound. Their work could bring history to life.
The dulcet tones of movers and shakers from an earlier age could soon be heard once again, thanks to scientists Vitaliy Fadeyev and Carl Haber, who usually work with subatomic particles at the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab. They are now planning to use that technology to give a voice to the great and the good down the annals of history.
Haber says the idea came to him by accident after he heard a radio report about the problems archivists have in preserving and accessing the voices and music of the past. He says a lightbulb went on in his head.
Why not adapt the precision techniques he and Fadeyev are using in a European-led project on particle physics, and apply it to old recordings? Made perfect sense to him.
"We stumbled on the idea and kind of made a connection," explains Haber.
"To us, it's a wonderful way forward where basic research in the physical sciences can be made to work for another field of research or culture, which you might naively think was unrelated to particle physics.
"Of course these are all the human endeavours and it's wonderful they can benefit each other. "
Russian-born Fadeyev agrees: "It's great that our very technical field can give benefits to other humanitarian activities."
A groovy kind of history
Their first experiments involved extracting high quality sound from old shellac discs from the 1950s.
The two scientists programmed a precision optical metrology system normally used to inspect silicon detectors, to map and photograph the undulating grooves etched on these old recordings.
The result was a digital reproduction with all the scratches, bumps, dust and wiggles ironed out. Those images were then transferred to a computer and turned into a sound file to produce a clean version of the original.
The beauty of this technique is that nothing ever has to touch the actual recording, thereby avoiding any further damage to it.
"It's like a fancy Xerox machine," quips Haber.
Early success in reviving The Weavers' 1950 rendition of the classic Huddie Ledbetter song Goodnight Irene suggested the two scientists were on to something.
And the US Library of Congress, in Washington, DC, backs that view.
It has given the scientists funding to perfect their technique and technology in the hope it can be used to access a huge archive. The library's files include 128 million items in formats ranging from tape to disc and from wax cylinders to tin foil cylinders.
In the past, the library has said that America's audio heritage is in danger. At least half of the wax cylinders used to record sound before 1902 are gone, because no one bothered to preserve them or because they weren't properly stored.
Fungal mould and insects have been the main culprits in silencing the voices of Americans from legendary eras such as the Civil War, the conquest of the western states, and the early days of slavery.
"They have lost as many cylinders to the mould as to breakages and other causes, so mould is definitely one of the major destructors of this old media," says Fadeyev.
In the corner of another Berkeley lab, two men are battling against time to perfect a machine that will read old cylinders using special microscopes to scan the grooves and software to convert those shapes into sound.
In an early successful experiment, scientists John McBride and Christian Maul from Southampton University helped retrieve data from a well worn 1912 cylinder recording of a sentimental tune called Just Before the Battle, Mother. In Berkeley, it was translated into a sound file.
Haber says, "A stylus measures a groove by one point, essentially where the stylus sits. The data we take is taken at least a factor of ten if not at a higher sampling or resolution than the stylus measures. So if you have ten times as much information, you have that much more of a chance to recover something. And we could even maybe go 20 or 30 times and increase our chances even more so."
Sound can be seen through the microscope
Both men are excited at the possibilities in being able to give voice once again to cylinders that are said to contain recordings of Queen Victoria, poets Alfred Tennyson and Walt Whitman, nurse Florence Nightingale, actress Sarah Bernhardt and Germany's WWI leader Kaiser Wilhelm.
Unconfirmed rumours abound that Abraham Lincoln even made a recording during the Civil War in 1863.
"History is something that everyone shares. When you can see it or hear it, that real time experience of it happening in front of your can awaken a whole other dimension for people," says Haber.
Vitaliy believes breathing new life into recordings that have been thought unplayable might also change the way we view the past.
"I think it's hard to quantify, but it's certainly a great cultural and emotional imprint. The very first sample that we reconstructed was the Goodnight Irene song. It's thought of as a lullaby these days, but if you listen to the lyrics it's about adultery, murder and some other things. That immediately gives you the feeling for the cultural change between the 1930s, 40s, 50s, and these days."