Technology captures bygone voices of indigenous Californians

Nov. 10, 2017
by Mark Ollig

A collection of 2,713 wax cylinders containing native voices more than 115 years old are being heard for the first time.

According to the National Science Foundation (NSF), beginning in 1901, California Native language speaker’s stories and songs were being recorded onto the surface of wax cylinders (think vinyl records).

More than 100 hours of assorted languages spoken by indigenous California Native Americans who lived in the state are stored in this collection of wax cylinders.

In all, California has more than 90 indigenous languages associated with 21 different language families, making the state linguistically more diverse than any area of its size in the western hemisphere.

Over the years, patches of mold covered the surface of the wax cylinders, making the use of standard audio mechanical playback devices and needle stylus’s ineffective.

There was a concern any playback device or stylus which came into physical contact with the wax cylinders, would further deteriorate their surface.

May 20, 2015, the NSF awarded Abstract No. 1500779 for “Linguistic and ethnographic sound recordings from early 20-century California: Optical scanning, digitization, and access.”

This grant was awarded to the University of California-Berkeley (UC), which had begun a project named “Documenting Endangered Languages.”

May 31, 2018, is the scheduled completion date for digitizing and archiving the audio contained on the wax cylinders.

Thus far, this NSF grant has awarded $200,000.

The restoration and digitalization of the wax cylinders were urgently needed, as the analog speech patterns contained within the indentations/grooves on the wax, had become practically unrecognizable.

New technology developed at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, was used at UC to create non-intrusive digital transfers of the audio information contained in the wax cylinders.

Optical laser light was used to “see” through the mold and capture the audio pattern indentations on the wax surface.

The indentations were then digitally scanned and stored as files on a computer.

No equipment or devices came into direct physical contact with the wax cylinder during the process.

The optically-obtained high-resolution image of the wax cylinder was then fashioned into a three-dimensional (3D) image using a special computer software program.

The software program used algorithmic processes on the 3D image of the wax cylinder.

The program then mathematically calculated the movements of how a needle’s stylus would be following the indentations of the spinning 3D wax cylinder.

Finally, a software algorithm then comparatively extracted and authentically recreated what the audio signal would actually sound like.

Faithful audio reproduction was also retrievable using this technique from damaged or broken wax cylinders.

I learned the audio quality using the above optical scanning and computer software technology, is superior to what would have been heard on a newly-recorded wax cylinder in the early 1900s.

By means of improved optical technology and program software modeling methods, investigators at UC have digitally recorded audio of the stories and songs by people in 78 indigenous languages which would otherwise have remained unheard; and thus lost forever.

The treasure-trove of the voices recovered from these wax cylinders is today being heard by the descendants of the indigenous people of California who recorded them.

These sound recordings from early 20th century California are a gift of language and culture from the past to the present.

The newly-archived digital recordings will remain available for future generations’ learning, scholarly research, and general appreciation for the rich history they bring to the present.

Speaking of recordings, Thomas Edison invented the speech recorder/cylinder phonograph in 1877.

Tin foil, instead of wax, was used as the recording surface for holding the sound vibration indentations of spoken words and music.

The tin foil he used was limited in the number of playbacks (using a hand-crank to rotate the cylinder), which could be heard before the foil’s indentations wore out.

The tin foil was later replaced with wax-coated cylinders, which could be repeatedly played, and was able to hold several minutes of audio.

The indigenous Native Californian wax cylinder collection is kept at the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology on the UC campus in Berkeley, CA. Its website is http://hearstmuseum.berkeley.edu.

The National Science Foundation’s YouTube channel shows highlights used for obtaining the voices from the wax cylinders and digitally archiving them. I encourage my readers to view this informative video at http://bit.ly/2ydwmx6.

Follow my personal social commentary on Twitter at @bitsandbytes, and visit my Bits & Bytes online blog page at https://bitscolumn.blogspot.com.

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