“Look at me; I don’t know the song.”

The 1878 Edison cylinder phonograph with the foil on it.

The oldest recording of an American voice can now be heard. Is it something profound, you might ask? It’s a 19th century political reporter from St. Louis bungling the words to a classic nursery rhyme.

The recording can now be heard thanks to the efforts the Museum of Innovation and Science in Schenectady NY and Berkeley Lab’s Carl Haber.

The 1878 recording (click for a video with the recording) runs 1 minute and 18 seconds and also includes the world’s first recorded blooper. It consists of a 23 second cornet solo of an unknown song, followed by a man reciting “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” an unidentified woman stating “Old Mother Hubbard,” followed by the same man reciting the poem. The man stumbles over the words in the second nursery rhyme, laughs, and can be heard reprimanding himself: “Look at me; I don’t know the song.” The man is likely St. Louis newspaper writer Thomas Mason.

The recording was last played on June 22, 1878 at a phonograph demonstration by Mason, who had purchased the machine (Serial #8) from Edison in April of that year for the then staggering amount of $95.50. Mason perished (from sunstroke) less than one month after the demonstration.

The foil, with the oldest recording of an American voice, of music, and of a blooper.

Because of the materials used – tinfoil, essentially – the medium was normally only playable once or twice before it was destroyed by the mechanism playing it. The foil sheet, 5″ wide by 15″ long, was wrapped onto a cylinder that was then played on the Edison device; the needle would play the recording, but also tear up the foil in the process. The demonstrator in the 19th century would, after playing back the recording, tear up the remaining foil and distribute the pieces among the audience as a souvenir of the demonstration. This particular foil recording is one of only two still in existence that are playable (the other is from 1880 and is in the Henry Ford Museum in Michigan). Edison’s later cylinders were made from a more durable wax composite.

Haber and his colleagues used a scanning technology to replicate a phonograph’s stylus, transforming the grooves into a 3D image that can then be played back by a computer.

The achievement restores a vital link in the evolution of recorded sound, Haber said. The artifact represents Edison’s first step in his efforts to record sound and have the capability to play it back, even if it was just once or twice, he said. ‘It really completes a technology story,’ Haber said. ‘He was on the right track from the get-go to record and play it back.’