On Sound Recordings, Edison, and Today's Internet

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On Sound Recordings, Edison, and Today's Internet

April 01, 2008

Recently there’s been quite a hubbub over the discovery and playback of the oldest known audio recording, a French inventor’s 1860 recording of a folk song, made 17 years before Thomas Edison invented the phonograph—indeed, in 1860 Thomas Edison was still a boy selling newspapers and candy on the trains of the Grand Trunk Railroad.
The 10-second recording is of a woman singing “Au Clair de la Lune, Pierrot Repondit” (“By the Light of the Moon, Pierrot Replied”) and was made on April 9, 1860, by Parisian inventor Edouard-Leon Scott de Martinville. He used a device called a phonautograph, which was essentially a mechanical version of a modern-day oscilloscope. Instead of displaying the sound waves as variations in the movement of an electron beam scanning a spot of light across a cathode ray tube, the phonautograph mechanically scratched the sound waveform onto a sheet of paper blackened by smoke by an oil lamp.
First Sounds, a group of audio historians, sound archivists, recording engineers, and others dedicated to preserving history’s earliest sound recordings, worked with scientists at California’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory to scan these waveforms and convert them back into sound.
Until this demonstration occurred, the oldest recorded sound in existence dated from 1888, 28 years after the French experiment.
Of course, the phonautograph recordings were never intended to be played back. The experimenter simply wanted to study a visual representation of the sound, which is a complex waveform. He never suspected that a technology would one day exist to recreate the sounds he had recorded in 1860.
The recording is posted on the Web at www.firstsounds.org/press/032708/index.php.
Thomas Edison’s reputation has not suffered from this latest revelation. Edison is still the inventor of the phonograph, and he was able to both record and play back his recordings (and make lots of money off of his invention). Indeed, Edison once remarked that the phonograph was his favorite invention, and quite a number of his patents relate to it.
In fact, Edison is in a sense the father of modern digital communications, since his first series of major inventions involved the telegraph network. It was cyberpunk author Neal Stephenson who once noted that the telegraph was the world’s first global digital network, and Tom Standage’s book on telegraphy, The Victorian Internet, reveals how the early telegraph network, like today’s Internet, had hackers and crackers, people who tried to disrupt communications (such as angry Native Americans attempting to slow down the white man’s encroachment on their land) and those who tried to get free and illegal access to the telegraph network.
Moreover, as use of telegraphy wildly increased. there was a noticeable slow-down in information transmitted because of a glut of data, similar to today’s network bottlenecks. Standage also amusingly notes how modern “visionaries” such as Nicholas Negroponte who predict that the Internet will bring about world peace are simply echoing their 19th century counterparts, who thought that the telegraph (and later the telephone) would enable quick and perfect understanding between governments and peoples and would bring an end to wars everywhere.
Edison, a man who called his daughter “dot” and his son “dash” (in loving reference to Morse Code), knew that the telegraph was the big money-making device of the day and, after patenting a successful stock ticker, he set about to increase network throughput.
Edison’s new apparatus solved the problem to such an extent that he and his assistants succeeded in transmitting and recording 1,000 words per minute between New York and Washington, and 3,500 words per minute to Philadelphia. Ordinary manual transmission by an operator tapping a key could not exceed more than about 40 to 50 fifty words a minute. Edison’s principal contribution to developing the high speed “automatic telegraph” was based on the observation that in a copper line of considerable length electrical impulses become “extended”, or “sluggish”, due to a phenomenon known as self-induction, which was ordinarily corrected by placing “condensers” (capacitors) on the line.
But the aim of “automatic telegraphy” was to deal with impulses following each other from 25 to 100 times as rapidly as in conventional Morse lines, and to attempt to receive and record intelligibly a lightning-like succession of signals that many thought impossible to achieve. Edison, however, discovered that by utilizing a “shunt” (a device which allows electrical current to pass around a point in the circuit, proportionally dividing current flow between the shunt and the shunted equipment) around the receiving instrument, with a soft iron core, the self-induction would produce a momentary and instantaneous reversal of the current at the end of each impulse, and thereby give an absolutely sharp definition to each signal. This discovery did away entirely with sluggishness, and made it possible to secure high speeds over lines of comparatively great lengths.
Thus, Edison was in a sense the originator of high-speed digital communications. Were he alive today, he would probably have worked out the high speed serial busses such as USB and Firewire (IEEE 1394), and even synchronous serial switch fabrics for computer backplanes and synchronous networks. After all, the Edison stock ticker’s most significant feature was a mechanism that enabled all of the tickers on a line to be synchronized so that they printed the same information. Additionally, Edison would have been quite at home on today’s Internet, working with NTP, the Network Time Protocol, a hierarchical system wherein root time servers have authoritative clocks and computers synchronize to root time servers in a self-organizing tree. NTP has more than 175,000 hosts, each of which is two or three links away from a root time source.
And in an age when ultrawideband signaling enables us to “reuse” existing lines and bandwidths, we can only look back in wonder on Edison’s quadruplex telegraph of 1874, which sent multiple messages along the same wire.
In 1853, Julius Wilhelm Gintl in Vienna, Austria discovered a way to send two telegraph messages in opposite directions down the same wire, though the technology was not commercially viable until 1871, when Joseph B. Stearns improved on the idea and developed his own duplex system of telegraphy. However, Edison’s 1874 quadruplex telegraph could send two messages simultaneously in each direction along a wire. He achieved this by having one message consist of an electric signal of varying strength , while the second was a signal of varying polarity or current direction. Thus by combining instruments that respond only to variation in the strength of current from the distant station (“diplex” signaling), with instruments that respond only to the change in the direction of current from the distant station (“duplex” signaling), and by grouping a pair of these at each end of the line, quadruplex signaling is the result.
When in full use, two sending and two receiving operators are working at each end of the circuit—eight in all. Western Union, recognizing $15 to $20 million could be saved in line construction costs by using the quadruplex, bought into the idea and had 13,000 miles of quadruplex lines in operation by 1878. Years later, quadruplex telegraphs were displaced by multiplex telegraphy capable of eight or more simultaneous transmissions, and teletype machines, which did not require their operators to know Morse Code, yet another step toward the modern Internet.
Edison, controversial innovator that he was, never ceased to amaze the public with his “wizardry.” Of course, many inventors whose work led either directly or indirectly to such iconic figures as Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell and Louis Jacques Mande Daugerre are nearly lost to history, left to be uncovered by today’s investigators.

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Richard Grigonis is Executive Editor of TMC’s IP Communications Group. To read more of Richard’s articles, please visit his columnist page.

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