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Standards Help Recover Unheard Audio Recordings from 100+ Years Ago

4/11/2022

Mystery recordings that have been archived for decades at the New York Public Library are being played for the first time in a century, thanks to a new machine that can digitize audio recorded on wax cylinders in the 1890s.

These early recordings, generated by sliding a wax cylinder onto a Thomas Edison phonograph, captured everything from commercial music to family gatherings. They represent the first extensive live recordings in history – but since the method relies on fragile wax, recordings deteriorate after several replays, and the wax cracks if you hold it in your hand for too long. The New York Public Library has about 2,700 of these cylinders; their contents range from Native American recordings with endangered languages to pre-World War I opera singers to birthday parties. 90 are unlabeled and have not yet been heard.

A new device called the Endpoint Cylinder and Dictabelt Machine was recently transported to the library to finally play and digitize these recordings, re-capturing the audio that was recorded so many years ago. The machine relies on an arm with a highly sensitive stylus that can read the grooves on the wax, even if it’s cracked or broken. Many of the elements of the Endpoint Cylinder and Dictabelt Machine have been supported by standards that promote technology development over the years:

Standards for modern audio recordings support preservation and transmission into different formats so that today’s recordings won’t be a mystery for future generations. One such standard, which guides flexible and high efficiency coding for audio accompanying video and other audio services and applications, such as the audio accompanying Internet video, TV audio system, digital audio storage, audio broadcasting and communication, virtual reality and panoramic audio, and more, is IEEE 1857.8, IEEE Standard for Second Generation Audio Coding, developed by IEEE.

What audio is contained on the unlabeled wax cylinders at the New York Public Library? Listen to this 7-minute segment of NPR radio (or read the transcript) to find out what they heard on one cylinder, and read more in the NPR article: Mystery recordings will now be heard for the first time in about 100 years.

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