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Ghostly Voices From Thomas Edisonâs Dolls Can Now Be Heard
Though Robin and Joan Rolfs owned two rare talking dolls manufactured by Thomas Edison’s phonograph company in 1890, they did not dare play the wax cylinder records tucked inside each one.
The Rolfses, longtime collectors of Edison phonographs, knew that if they turned the cranks on the dolls’ backs, the steel phonograph needle might damage or destroy the grooves of the hollow, ring-shaped cylinder. And so for years, the dolls sat side by side inside a display cabinet, bearers of a message from the dawn of sound recording that nobody could hear.
In 1890, Edison’s dolls were a flop; production lasted only six weeks. Children found them difficult to operate and more scary than cuddly. The recordings inside, which featured snippets of nursery rhymes, wore out quickly.
Yet sound historians say the cylinders were the first entertainment records ever made, and the young girls hired to recite the rhymes were the world’s first recording artists.
Year after year, the Rolfses asked experts if there might be a safe way to play the recordings. Then a government laboratory developed a method to play fragile records without touching them.
The technique relies on a microscope to create images of the grooves in exquisite detail. A computer approximates — with great accuracy — the sounds that would have been created by a needle moving through those grooves.
In 2014, the technology was made available for the first time outside the laboratory.
“The fear all along is that we don’t want to damage these records. We don’t want to put a stylus on them,” said Jerry Fabris, the curator of the Thomas Edison Historical Park in West Orange, N.J. “Now we have the technology to play them safely.”
Last month, the Historical Park posted online three never-before-heard Edison doll recordings, including the two from the Rolfses’ collection. “There are probably more out there, and we’re hoping people will now get them digitized,” Mr. Fabris said.
The technology, which is known as Irene (Image, Reconstruct, Erase Noise, Etc.), was developed by the particle physicist Carl Haber and the engineer Earl Cornell at Lawrence Berkeley. Irene extracts sound from cylinder and disk records. It can also reconstruct audio from recordings so badly damaged they were deemed unplayable.
“We are now hearing sounds from history that I did not expect to hear in my lifetime,” Mr. Fabris said.
The Rolfses said they were not sure what to expect in August when they carefully packed their two Edison doll cylinders, still attached to their motors, and drove from their home in Hortonville, Wis., to the National Document Conservation Center in Andover, Mass. The center had recently acquired Irene technology.
Cylinders carry sound in a spiral groove cut by a phonograph recording needle that vibrates up and down, creating a surface made of tiny hills and valleys. In the Irene set-up, a microscope perched above the shaft takes thousands of high-resolution images of small sections of the grooves.
Stitched together, the images provide a topographic map of the cylinder’s surface, charting changes in depth as small as one five-hundredth the thickness of a human hair. Pitch, volume and timbre are all encoded in the hills and valleys and the speed at which the record is played.
At the conservation center, the preservation specialist Mason Vander Lugt attached one of the cylinders to the end of a rotating shaft. Huddled around a computer screen, the Rolfses first saw the wiggly waveform generated by Irene. Then came the digital audio. The words were at first indistinct, but as Mr. Lugt filtered out more of the noise, the rhyme became clearer.
Recently, the conservation center turned up another surprise.
In 2010, the Woody Guthrie Foundation received 18 oversize phonograph disks from an anonymous donor. No one knew if any of the dirt-stained recordings featured Guthrie, but Tiffany Colannino, then the foundation’s archivist, had stored them unplayed until she heard about Irene.
Last fall, the center extracted audio from one of the records, labeled “Jam Session 9” and emailed the digital file to Ms. Colannino.
“I was just sitting in my dining room, and the next thing I know, I’m hearing Woody,” she said. In between solo performances of “Ladies Auxiliary,” “Jesus Christ,” and “Dead or Alive,” Guthrie tells jokes, offers some back story, and makes the audience laugh. “It is quintessential Guthrie,” Ms. Colannino said.
The Rolfses’ dolls are back in the display cabinet in Wisconsin. But with audio stored on several computers, they now have a permanent voice.
Jim Fanning, 87, Dies; Lifted Baseball in Canada With Expos
Hired in 1968, a year before their first season, Mr. Fanning spent 25 years with the team, managing them to their only playoff appearance in Canada.
Edward Chambers, Early Leader in Community Organizing, Dies at 85
A lapsed seminarian, Mr. Chambers succeeded Saul Alinsky as leader of the social justice umbrella group Industrial Areas Foundation.
Don Mankiewicz, Screenwriter in a Family Film Tradition, Dies at 93
Mr. Mankiewicz, an Oscar-nominated screenwriter for “I Want to Live!,” also wrote episodes of television shows such as “Star Trek” and “Marcus Welby, M.D.”
Police Rethink Long Tradition on Using Force
WASHINGTON — During a training course on defending against knife attacks, a young Salt Lake City police officer asked a question: “How close can somebody get to me before I’m justified in using deadly force?”
Dennis Tueller, the instructor in that class more than three decades ago, decided to find out. In the fall of 1982, he performed a rudimentary series of tests and concluded that an armed attacker who bolted toward an officer could clear 21 feet in the time it took most officers to draw, aim and fire their weapon.
The next spring, Mr. Tueller published his findings in SWAT magazine and transformed police training in the United States. The “21-foot rule” became dogma. It has been taught in police academies around the country, accepted by courts and cited by officers to justify countless shootings, including recent episodes involving a homeless woodcarver in Seattle and a schizophrenic woman in San Francisco.
Now, amid the largest national debate over policing since the 1991 beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles, a small but vocal set of law enforcement officials are calling for a rethinking of the 21-foot rule and other axioms that have emphasized how to use force, not how to avoid it. Several big-city police departments are already re-examining when officers should chase people or draw their guns and when they should back away, wait or try to defuse the situation
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