As the Series Producer for QUEST, I get to read through a lot of amazing science story ideas, but when I first read about the work that Carl Haber, Vitaliy Fadeyev and Earl Cornell were doing at Lawrence Berkeley National Labs, I knew it was a story I wanted to do. OK, I admit that part of the reason is that I love music and sound, and have been interested in audio technology since I was a kid (back when we listened to records). But for me, a big part of the story’s “coolness” is how this team – and Carl Haber in particular – came up with the idea. I love the idea that he was just listening to the radio one day and heard that the Library of Congress was failing in its struggle to preserve a significant portion of our nation’s music and sound heritage. Haber basically thought, “well, as a designer of instrumentation for particle physics, I think I can help.” And that’s what he did. He felt passionate about solving a problem, and he changed the world.
I had heard of Edison-style wax cylinders, but I had never seen one, and I had no idea how much audio history (musical as well as cultural) had been recorded in the format. One of the best parts of the shoot (we shot on two different days), was our visit with Victoria Bradshaw at the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology. Walking through the floor-to-ceiling shelving and stepping up to literally hundreds of carefully-packed wax cylinders was a revelation. Holding one in my hands (gloved hands) was an amazing feeling. And to see the wax cylinders upon which Alfred Kroeber had actually recorded Ishi speaking – hard to put into words. I couldn’t help but imagine Kroeber himself, with a box of blank cylinders and a recorder strapped to a mule, fording a river on his way to meet an Indian who “spoke a language nobody can understand.” Suddenly it was clear to me how important it is to save these recordings before they disintegrate.
And for a science-head, visiting Haber’s lab was amazing. Far from antiseptic, the whole place was filled with hacked parts of microscopes, old record and cylinder players, computers running custom software, circuit boards, wires hanging everywhere. It was a great reminder that real science is a permanent work-in-progress. And when it’s all said and done – and the Library of Congress is already using Haber’s flat-record technology – we’ll all be better off. Thanks to Haber’s team, soon we’ll have pristine, permanent copies of many of these endangered recordings. And as these collections are migrated to the web, that’s great news, not just for museums and archives, but for all of us.
And one last quick thing: If you’re interested in learning more about our wax cylinder legacy, check out this UC Santa Barbara site. It has great information on the history of the format, and it offers hundreds of wax cylinders that you can listen stream right off the net!