Abraham Lincoln could be heard again thanks to whizz-kids of particle physics
Sunday 25 July 2004
We still have the scratchy recorded voices of Queen Victoria, Lord Tennyson, Thomas Edison and Sarah Bernhardt - ghosts from an era when sound technology was in its infancy. Now, thanks to the efforts of two nuclear physicists from California, we may soon be able to resurrect many more voices from the same period, voices whose preservation has, until now, been compromised by age, insects and fungal mould.
Through a mixture of serendipity and creative thinking, Carl Haber and Vitaliy Fadeyev of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory have figured out a way of adapting their research into particle physics to collect and restore data from damaged wax or tin recording cylinders.
For now, they have experimented largely on shellac records from the 1950s - to test their theory that the use of their SmartScope super-microscope does no damage to the eroded surfaces it inspects and scans. Recently, though, they moved on to a 1912 wax-cylinder recording of a barbershop quartet singing a song called "Just Before the Battle, Mother".
Their success with that sample was enough to win funding from the Library of Congress in Washington, which has no fewer than 128 million sound recordings from all eras in its archives. The hope is that the technology they have developed can help reconnect the modern world to the era of horse-drawn carriages, Wild West pioneers, railroad tycoons and Southern slave-holders.
Nobody yet knows what they might turn up, although the speculation has inevitably begun. Legend has it that Abraham Lincoln spoke into some kind of recording device in 1863, at the height of the Civil War. Nobody knows where any such recording might be stored, much less what condition it is in, so it remains a distant hope. Still, it is likely that the researchers will resuscitate the voices of singers, politicians and public speakers of all stripes.
Dr Haber and Dr Fadeyev originally teamed up to work on a European-backed project to try to find a putative sub-atomic particle known as a Higgs Boson. Their contribution was to use the Berkeley laboratory's SmartScope microscope to examine flat wafers of silicon. The SmartScope, as it turns out, does not just magnify the surfaces under its lens. It photographs them digitally and then maps their shapes and locations on a computer to a degree of accuracy down to the micron (one-thousandth of a millimetre).
Their breakthrough realisation was that this technology could be used to inspect the grooves of a recording surface; the computer could then eliminate fluffs and static. At no stage do the delicate or damaged surfaces need to be played as originally intended - which means there is no risk of inflicting further harm on them.
Dr Haber has likened the process to a "virtual stylus" or a fancy kind of photocopying machine.
This is not the first time that digital-age technology has come to the rescue of damaged recordings from the analog age. Four years ago, Ken Kesey, the now deceased author and founder of the counter-cultural Merry Pranksters, reconstituted the soundtrack of his famous 1964 bus trip across America - chronicled in Tom Wolfe's The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. The original soundtrack had been powered by the bus's generator, its speed varying with the speed of the bus, and could not be fixed until the advent of digital sound.
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