November 20, 2009


IMLS Press Contacts
Jeannine Mjoseth,
Mamie Bittner,

Washington, DC—The Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) will advance technology that can recover and digitally re-master rare early sound recordings made on wax cylinders – including experimental recordings created in the 1880’s by Alexander Graham Bell -- even when the original cylinder is cracked or broken. The research project, which includes development of a mobile 2D scanning device, builds on previous successes of the "3D/PRISM" or "IRENE-3D" project, which significantly impacted research and practice in the area of early audio recordings preservation.

The current IRENE projects are funded in part by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) under the National Leadership Grant program. Other project partners include the Library of Congress, The Phoebe Hearst Museum of Anthropology, The University of Chicago’s South Asia Library, The Berlin Phonogramm Archive, The Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History, the Edison National Historic Site, and the University of Applied Science, Fribourg, Switzerland.

In the project’s first stage (2005-2006, funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities), Berkeley Lab created IRENE-2D (Image, Reconstruct, Erase Noise, Etc.), technology that gathered digital sound from grooved discs (flat recordings such as traditional 78 rpm shellac disc records) by illuminating the record surface with a narrow beam of light. The flat bottoms of the groove -- and the spaces between tracks -- appeared white, while the sloped sides of the groove, scratches, and dirt appeared black. The computer turned this information into a digital sound file and corrected areas where scratches, breaks or wear made the groove wider or narrower than normal. IRENE then "played" the file with a virtual needle without damaging or destroying the original media. The technology was adapted from methods used to build radiation detectors for high-energy physics experiments.

In stage two (2008-2009, funded by IMLS), Berkeley Lab developed a 3D imaging sound player to read foil, wax, plastic cylinders (which preceded the development of flat records), plastic dictation belts, and discs. The 3D technology read the cylinders since the sound was held in vertical movements of the groove. The 3D device was based upon a type of confocal microscope. White light directed at the surface of a cylinder or disc passed through a special lens, creating a spectrum. Each color of the spectrum came into focus at a different depth so the color of the reflected light revealed the height of the scanned point. A computer assembled these points into profiles for each groove and translated the data into a sound file. The 3D scan extracted information based on 20-30 points – compared to IRENE-2D's 2-4 points – offering the possibility of higher quality sound files. Tinfoil and wax cylinders were developed in the late 1870s and 1880s, and cylinders remained in use until 1929, when commercial production for these music recordings ceased. However, cylinder technology continued to be used for dictation recordings for office use into the early 1950s.

The new three-year research project will address large scale digitization of collections through the design and evaluation of a software control and analysis framework. For collections that are remote or not transportable, a mobile 2D scanning device will be built and evaluated in a remote application. Collaborating with the University of Chicago South Asia Library, a system will be operated in India where significant early 20th century recorded sound collections exist. In addition, measurement studies will be made on copper "galvano" cylinder molds from the Berlin Phonogramm Archive, and a collection of rare and unusual experimental recordings created by Alexander Graham Bell in the early 1880’s from the collection of the Smithsonian Institution. Software tools and measurement strategies for the virtual reassembly of broken cylinders and discs will be evaluated. The latter will include a measurement of the (broken) Dickson Cylinder, Thomas Edison’s 1893 attempt to synchronize film and audio. The range of special studies has been chosen both to address key aspects of the technology development and to gauge the potential benefit to these and other important special collections. Other project activities include archival workflow, field operation, special materials studies, and further technical development to be carried out through a series of national and international collaborations.

Berkeley Lab is a U.S. Department of Energy national laboratory located in Berkeley, California. It conducts unclassified scientific research for DOE’s Office of Science and is managed by the University of California. Visit their Web site at

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