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February 1, 2012 / John Sieger

Signal To Noise & A Voice From The Past

A wax cylinder, the original MP3.

It’s not often you get to hear a recording of someone born in 1800. Fighting his way through an ocean of noise is my man, Helmuth von Moltke, a venerable (according to the NY Times, I’ll take their word) German military strategist, recorded at the age of 89 in 1889 on Edison’s new-fangled wax recording cylinder. So scratchy, it sounds like someone is sanding him down, he reads from Shakespeare and Goethe’s “Faust.” You might say he was waxing poetic. If you don’t go for old Helmuth, check out Otto von Bismark, in the only known recording of his voice. Not quite as commanding as Hitler, but again, the noise. It really gets in the way. All of these and many more more recently came to light when wax cylinders that were found over 50 years ago near the cot Edison napped on at his lab were finally transcribed and digitized. It’s funny to think you could now have these on your iPod. Recording engineers fight to acheive a good “signal to noise” ratio. I guess what that means is they don’t want their recordings to sound like these ones do! To listen, read and marvel at these very early recordings, go here. Thank you New York Times Science section.

© 2012 John Sieger

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