People in Schenectady, N.Y., will get a chance tonight to hear something that hasn't been heard publicly since 1878: a tinfoil recording made that year on what was then revolutionary equipment, Thomas Edison's phonograph.

Gathering at the Museum of Innovation and Science, people will hear a rough-sounding 78 seconds of music and voice, as well as an explanation by Carl Haber of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory how he and his colleagues recovered the sound using digital techniques.

The tinfoil that Edison used was extremely thin and tolerated only a few plays before it began to wear down and even puncture.


This photo provided by the Museum of Innovation and Science in Schenectady, N.Y., shows Thomas Edison's 1878 tinfoil phonograph. (Associated Press)

The stylus would eventually tear the foil after just a few playbacks, and the person demonstrating the technology would typically tear up the tinfoil and hand the pieces out as souvenirs, museum curator Chris Hunter told The Associated Press.

The recording opens with a 23-second cornet solo of an unidentified song, followed by a man's voice reciting Mary Had a Little Lamb and Old Mother Hubbard. The man laughs at two spots during the recording, including at the end, when he recites the wrong words in the second nursery rhyme.

"Look at me; I don't know the song," he says.  At a time when music lovers can carry thousands of digital songs on a player the size of a pack of gum, Edison's tinfoil playback seems prehistoric. But it opens a key window into the development of recorded sound.

"In the history of recorded sound that's still playable, this is about as far back as we can go," said John Schneiter, a trustee at the Museum of Innovation and Science, where it will be played Thursday night in the city where Edison helped found the General Electric Co.

When the recording is played using modern technology during a presentation Thursday, it likely will be the first time it has been played at a public event since it was created during an Edison phonograph demonstration held June 22, 1878, in St. Louis, museum officials said.

The recording was made on a sheet of tinfoil, 12.7 centimetres wide by 38 centimetres long, placed on the cylinder of the phonograph Edison invented in 1877 and began selling the following year. A hand crank turned the cylinder under a stylus that would move up and down over the foil, recording the sound waves created by the operator's voice.  In July, Hunter brought the Edison tinfoil recording to California's Berkeley Lab, where researchers such as Haber have had success in recent years restoring some of the earliest audio recordings.

Haber and his team used optical scanning technology to replicate the action of the phonograph's stylus, reading the grooves in the foil and creating a 3D image, which was then analyzed by a computer program that recovered the original recorded sound.