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Wanna hear Lincoln? Click here

July 27, 2004 18:27 IST

Vitaliy Fadeyev and Carl Haber must feel a bit like Thomas Edison did 127 years ago, when he made his first recording of the human voice on a tinfoil cylinder phonograph. They must have a pretty good idea of what was going through the mind of Guglielmo Marconi in 1894, the year he invented the radio. And - as we're still on this - they could possibly have told Alan Blumlein a thing or two in 1931, when he patented the 'binaural' (stereo) recording method.

The reason Fadeyev and Haber fit right into that celebrated list is the astonishing feat they have managed to pull off. Thanks to the duo's work on subatomic particles (conducted at the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab in California), historical figures like Queen Victoria, Abraham Lincoln and Florence Nightingale may soon be able to speak to us again. They will be heard with the help of a machine (of course) that will read old recordings, using special microscopes to scan the grooves, and software to convert those shapes into sound. Think of it as a box dredging for the voices of the dead.

The idea popped into Haber's head while he was listening to a radio report on preservation problems faced by voice and music archivists. He realised his work with Fadeyev could easily be applied to old recordings, and yet another 'Eureka!' moment was born.

It didn't happen overnight, of course. Early experiments involved extracting high quality sound from 1950s shellac discs. The scientists programmed an optical system to map and photograph undulating grooves, creating a digital reproduction with the scratches, bumps and dust removed. These images were then transferred to a computer, turned into a sound file, and played back. The best part -- nothing has to touch the actual recording, thereby avoiding the possibility of further damage!

According to Haber, a stylus measures a groove by one point alone. What their system does is takes a much higher sampling or resolution. With up to ten times as much information available, the chances of recovering more sound rise tremendously. The work could breathe life into voices recorded on tin and wax cylinders that are now too damaged to play, as well as thousands of 78rpm discs.

All of this has come as reason enough for the US Library of Congress to fund the scientists. Once the technique and technology is perfected, they can set to work on the library's 128 million items in formats ranging from tapes to discs, wax cylinders to tin foil cylinders. More than half the wax cylinders used before 1902 are gone. Technology alone can prevent what's left. Needless to say, Fadeyev and Haber are excited about uncovering recordings of everyone from the poets Alfred Tennyson and Walt Whitman, to actress Sarah Bernhardt, Germany's Kaiser Wilhelm and, according to rumours, even one of Abraham Lincoln made during the Civil War in 1863!

For those who thought the introduction of the iPod in 2001 was the big thing of the decade, there could be a bit of historical rewriting in store. Incidentally, a report claims that Haber got the idea of decoding unplayable recordings while stuck in a traffic jam. Think about that the next time you're stuck on a busy street.

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