The Story of Sound: The Talking Machine

Whether it was rushing to Woolworth’s to bag the latest CD, patiently recording songs off the radio onto compact cassette tape, or seeking through the slick sleeves of vinyl at a local record store, the analogue formats of recorded sound that pre date today’s digital era hold a special place in the hearts of those that have experienced them. While some would never turn back to the old methods in the wake of endless streaming services, others swear by their favourite analogue devices.

But what, I hear you ask, was the first method for storing recorded sound? This is a question that whisks us far away from today’s digital technology, taking us right back to the earliest recorded words, which marked the beginning of what would turn into nearly 200 years’ worth of captured sound.

The 1800’s were a period of invention, and the first key milestone for recorded sound came in the 1850’s via French inventor Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville. Scott questioned the idea that if photography, which had been invented several decades earlier, could capture fleeting images with lenses modelled on the eye, could a replica of the ear capture the spoken word?

Using medical text and diagrams of human auditory anatomy as inspiration, Scott invented the Phonautograph. It consisted of a horn covered with a thick elasticated membrane to which was attached a movable stylus. When sound was made into the horn, the membrane vibrated, causing the stylus to move. Scott covered pieces of paper, wood, and glass with soot, and fed them underneath the Phonautograph by turning a hand crank. The stylus etched marks into the soot, providing a 2D representation of the sound wave. Since the etched marks were insubstantial 2D lines, playback was not possible, however it was never Scott’s initial intention to be able to record and play back sound.

Diagram of Scott’s Phonautograph

The Phonautograph’s initial purpose was purely as a device used to study the amplitude and acoustic of speech and other sounds. Over the next decade Scott experimented with the Phonautograph’s capabilities, improving the recording apparatus. Instead of recording onto a straight piece of paper, he recorded onto a cylinder, allowing for longer recordings.

Scott’s Phonautograph

Scott began to experiment with recording tuning forks and song, however, without the ability to play back the recordings at the time, the Phonautograph’s potential was not truly fulfilled. Its true success was perhaps in the inspiration it provided for subsequent inventors.

Nearly twenty years later, Thomas Edison became the first person to invent a device which both recorded and played back sound, a talking machine. In December 1877, the publication, Scientific America, wrote an article which stated:

‘Mr. Thomas A. Edison recently came into this office, placed a little machine on our desk, turned a crank, and the machine inquired as to our health, asked how we liked the phonograph, informed us that it was very well, and bid us a cordial good night. These remarks were not only perfectly audible to ourselves, but to a dozen or more persons gathered around’.

Thomas Edison and his early Phonograph

Like Scott’s Phonautograph, Edison’s Phonograph was centred around a rotating cylinder, turned by a handle. Edison’s cylinder was covered in a sheet of tin foil. A mouthpiece attached to a diaphragm and stylus transferred the vibrations made by speech, indenting them into tin foil with varying degrees of pressure dependent of the intensity of the sound. The foil allowed for a 3D indentation, a groove into which a stylus could be placed. When the device was wound again, the sound would be recreated, the undulations in the tinfoil causing the stylus to move in and out of the indented groove. This caused the diaphragm to vibrate, which in turn moved the air in the mouthpiece, replicating the sound. Edison stated that the first words in history to be recorded and played back were ‘Mary had a little lamb’.

  Despite this revolutionary step, Edison was a man of many inventions, and swiftly moved his attention away from the Phonograph, filing a patent for the first electric light bulb two years later in 1879. The Phonograph provided great advancements to the progress of recoded sound, the baton of which was picked up by other key inventors including Alexander Graham Bell.

     In 2008 scientists working upon a project called First Sounds, located Scott’s original recordings and used modern technology to play them for the first time in history. This huge break through into the history of early recorded sound allows us to hear the recordings that Scott himself was never able to play. Although the quality of the recordings is primitive, we are able to hear Scott himself speaking, and experimental recordings made by Scott to tuning forks, including the French folk song, ‘Au clair de la lune’. To find out more about the First Sounds project, and hear these remarkable first sound recordings, follow the link below:

http://www.firstsounds.org/sounds/scott.php

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A Luxury London Retreat: The Journal of Margaret Howes

Margaret Howes was approaching eleven years when she recounted her vibrant experience in London during the September of 1855 (NRO, MC 340/7, 710×9). After travelling from Norwich through Cambridgeshire, and sightseeing in the cities of Ely and Cambridge, Margaret, accompanied by her parents Mr and Mrs Howes, her sister Edith and her Grandmother, finally arrived in the bustling capital. In her journal she talks of her experiences of visiting the Crystal Palace 4 years after the Great Exhibition and describes feeding the animals at London Zoo.

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Smells like 1666!

Amongst the millions of documents held at the Norfolk Record Office (NRO), those connected with probate provide an insight into the homes and workplaces of the county’s citizens.

The inventory of the ‘Goods and Chattles of Robt Wales late Grocer of Norwich’, (NRO, DN/INV 53b/120), is dated 18th April 1666. This was just five months before London goes up in flames and Norwich is experiencing the last recorded visit of the Plague. The parish registers for the city demonstrate the deaths of those unfortunates who succumb.

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Volunteering with Unlocking Our Sound Heritage

Unlocking Our Sound Heritage is a UK wide project chaired by the British Library to preserve the nation’s sound archives. Supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund, Unlocking Our Sound Heritage (UOSH) has ten project hubs around the country, working to digitise and catalogue at-risk and historically significant analogue audio collections. Norfolk Record Office is proud to have been selected as the East of England UOSH hub, its dedicated UOSH team working to preserve audio collections from organisations and individuals across the eastern counties.

The East of England UOSH hub at Norfolk Record Office is extremely grateful for the hard work and commitment of its team of volunteers, who provide invaluable support towards the cataloguing process. 42 wonderful volunteers contribute their time towards the project, listening to newly digitised audio collections in full at Norfolk Record Office. The volunteers produce summaries of the content of each sound recording, marking sensitivities, and noting highlights. This crucial step in the process allows our cataloguers to use the summaries to effectively support their work, improving the efficiency of the overall process.

Isobel McManus and Eloise Prichard, Masters students studying at the University of East Anglia, have each written about their experiences of volunteering on the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage Project:

2019 Norfolk Record Office Volunteer Christmas Party

“My name is Eloise and I am currently an MA Cultural Heritage and Museum Studies student at the University of East Anglia.

I was interested in volunteering for the UOSH project because I had never had the opportunity to work with audio archives before and it was a type of conservation work that I knew very little about.

I started with the project in January 2019 and have been able to flexibly undertake it alongside my university studies, something that I have appreciated and that has made the sessions interesting and stress free. Since starting to volunteer with UOSH, I’ve been lucky enough to listen to a huge variety of recordings. These have included recordings from the sound archives of the Royal Greenwich Observatory, which are currently housed within the Cambridge University Archives (although I must admit, I did not understand all of the technical references completely!). I particularly enjoyed listening to a collection in March/April of 2019, which contained interviews with Norfolk farmers discussing their animals and crops. This was a world that I was entirely unfamiliar with, but by the end of the interviews I felt like I could have probably run a semi-successful farm! 

More recently the interviews that I have listened to have been an hour or longer in length, and this has given me a chance to work on my ability to extract relevant information and to write brief, succinct synopses about the audio clips.  I’ve found that volunteering for UOSH has helped my study skills, which has indisputably been an added benefit.

I am so glad that I applied to be a UOSH volunteer, it has been a really enjoyable experience, and has allowed me to meet new people from all over Norfolk who share an interest in heritage. I has been some of the most interesting work that I’ve done and, because of the variety of clips and random information that I now know, it always works as an interesting conversation starter! It has been incredibly rewarding to have been part of a project supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund”.

Eloise Prichard

Isobel McManus, volunteer for Unlocking Our Sound Heritage

“My name is Isobel and I am currently an MA Landscape History student at the University of East Anglia.

I began volunteering alongside Eloise, and it was a lovely weekly outing to Norfolk Record Office each Wednesday morning. I was interested in volunteering on this project because I feel it is crucially important to preserve endangered sound archives, and because it allows me to work on something that is completely new to me.

During my time volunteering for UOSH, I have listened to a wide array of sound recordings. I have enjoyed engaging with this living social history, which has often been both touching and fascinating. Particular recordings which have stood out for me have included an account of a Second World War pilot who survived a crash landing, and a lady recounting her daily working life on Gressenhall farm, Norfolk.

In my role as a volunteer, I am responsible for logging the relevant information relating to each sound recording on a spreadsheet. This includes information such as the date of recording, the names of the interviewer/interviewee, a short synopsis of the recording, and any special observations. My attention to detail has improved, as some recordings can be over an hour, and so it is important to convert the information conveyed by the speakers into a succinct but brief overview.

I am proud to be a UOSH volunteer at Norfolk Record Office and help on this nation-wide project. I have enjoyed meeting new people whilst gaining new skills (like cataloguing) and confidence. For example, myself and Eloise had great fun attending the volunteer Christmas party in 2019. As a MA history student it has been fulfilling to contribute to a project outside of my studies.

Overall, my experience volunteering on the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project has been invaluable. It has been exciting and insightful listening to living social history. I enjoy the spontaneity that each week may bring, as the content of each audio collection differs so much from week to week. It feels special to be part of a nation-wide project supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund. I have enjoyed using Norfolk Record Office throughout my four years of study and hope to continue to do so in the near future.”

Isobel McManus

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What happened to Eugenia Zagajewska: discovering the story behind a name on a grave

The military section of Earlham cemetery contains graves of war victims of many nationalities, including even some German graves.  Two in the Polish section of eleven graves have always intrigued me: those of Wladislaw Slizewski and Eugenia Zagajewska.  Both died on the same day 22 April 1946, suggesting some kind of tragic incident (both were just 21 years old), and the ‘-a’ endings of the second name show that the deceased was a woman, very unusual on a military commemoration. (I know of only one other  example in the whole of Britain of a female Polish military grave).

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'Conscientious and promising nurse' to 'Appeared to lack brain and interest': Comments found in the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital Nurses’ Registers (1900-1928)

Nurses’ Registers can be a useful historical source for those researching their family history or nursing training. They can also provide a fascinating insight into the lives and personalities of the people who worked there.

Nurse Training

In the early twentieth century, the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital (NNH) was one of many hospitals offering training in return for free nursing care. It ran a three year certificated course and introduced a four year course in 1904. Dora Mary Bryant was the first nurse at the NNH to join under the 4 years system (NRO Ref, NNH 114/1).

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Conserving the Richard Bright Collection

Dr Richard Bright is a key figure in the history of medicine and intellectual life, famous for his work in nephrology and discovery of Bright’s disease, but also active in other areas, including natural history, geology, anthropology and travel. Bright was a notable figure on the London medical scene and was particularly active at Guy’s Hospital.

The Bright paper collection held at the Norfolk Record Office (MC 166/299, 633X7-8) consists of approximately 850 individual manuscripts and 13 notebooks containing about 830 pages in total. These items, housed in two boxes, date from 1808 to 1858 and were either written by or received by Richard Bright. Together they chart the early years of Bright’s career as a doctor and author.

Grants received from the Wellcome Trust, the National Manuscript Conservation Trust, and from other generous donors has enabled the NRO to carry out the conservation treatments.

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Royal Greenwich Observatory

The ‘Unlocking Our Sound Heritage’ Project has received many collections for digitisation since it began. One such collection is the sound archives of the Royal Greenwich Observatory (RGO), currently housed within the Cambridge University Archives. This collection has a vast range of interviews and recordings that give an insight into the work of RGO, its employees, and its history. In it you will find interviews with some famous names in astronomy, including Sir Richard Woolley and Sir Bernard Lovell who both served the position of Astronomer Royal. In addition to well-known names, the collection has interviews with a wide range of staff of the Observatory and from it we can get a first-hand glimpse into the history and changes that RGO went through over the years.

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