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!

Producer’s Notes: How Edison Got His Groove Back 12 March,2016Josh Rosen

  • As a historian, I can assure you that Kroeber did not strap any recording device to mule and ford a river with it. In fact, Kroeber brought Ishi to live at the Anthropology Museum, which was on the site of today’s UCSF in San Francisco. The recordings were undoubtedly made in San Francisco or Berkeley, in a UC building.

    I’d love to hear the Ishi recordings if you can make them available on the Internet. But I think it’s also important to record the sounds and sights of Ishi’s homeland along Mill and Deer Creeks in Tehama County. As a naturalist and leader of California Nature Tours, I’d be happy to take you on a walking tour of this area to record the sounds, and hopefully, the sights of this locale, which is virtually unchanged since Ishi emerged from it in 1911. If anyone is interested, please contact me at 415-971-5201, or email me through my website, http://www.CaliforniaNatureTours.com

  • Josh Rosen

    Thanks for the correction, David. Now that you mention it, I do remember Andrew Garrett telling me that Ishi was brought back to San Francisco where Kroeber met with him. Apparently Kroeber had the deepest knowledge of Yurok, Yana and related languages. And you’re right – my overly romantic visualization tendencies got the better of me. Truth is that Ishi was ‘taken into custody’ by the local sheriff in Oroville and shipped to San Francisco. Far from romantic in reality (although apparently Kroeber did make quite a few other cylinder recordings in the field.) Thanks again for the heads up. And we’ll work on getting more Ishi recordings up on the web.

Author

Josh Rosen

Josh Rosen was the TV Series Producer for QUEST from 2007-2009. He is a senior writer and producer specializing in documentary series and factual programming. Over the last decade he's produced a wide range of non-fiction hours, covering everything from Antarctic expeditions to Civil War history. With a background in feature film, Josh spent four years working with legendary German filmmaker Werner Herzog on multiple documentaries, including the Emmy-nominated "Little Dieter Needs to Fly," "Wings of Hope," and "Klaus Kinski: My Best Fiend." His more recent projects are currently airing on the Discovery Channel, the National Geographic Channel, the History Channel, and worldwide through Granada Media and RDF Television.

Sponsored by

Become a KQED sponsor