So what are the oldest known “records” in this sense—that is, the oldest known gramophone recordings, as opposed to the oldest sound recordings in general? The first commercially available gramophone discs were manufactured and released in Europe in the summer of 1890, and numerous examples are available for listening (here, for example). In addition to these, a few experimental gramophone discs from 1887 and 1888 survive at the Smithsonian Institution and elsewhere, but attempts to play these haven’t been very successful, and no intelligible or identifiable content has been recovered from them to date. Finally, some other very old gramophone recordings have come down to us only in the form of prints made on paper,like the one on the fourth floor of Wells Library. This isn’t a unique situation. Many important early motion pictures that didn’t survive in the form of actual films were nevertheless preserved as paper prints deposited for copyright registration purposes with the Library of Congress and later retransferred to film for projection and preservation. Similarly, I’ve found that paper prints of “lost” gramophone recordings can be digitally converted back into playable, audible form.
This is incredible. Reminds me of HAL reading the astronauts’s lips in 2001: A Space Odyssey.