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The world earliest playable phonograph recording – voices from 1878 of an experimental talking clock.

Experimental Talking Clock

Company Frank Lambert                    
Cylinder # Experimental
Category Talking
Title Talking clock
Performed by Frank Lambert
Circa 1878
Announcement None

Mere months after Edison's invention of the phonograph, inventor Frank Lambert shared Edison's vision of applying the new talking machine toward the development of a talking clock.

Realizing that soft tinfoil, which was the recording medium of the day, would not provide a lasting record (wax cylinders were still years away), Lambert (no relation to Thomas Lambert, inventor of the Lambert celluloid cylinder) apparently chose to experiment with a cylinder made of lead (see below).   As a result, his early sound recording experiments can still be heard today after more than 130 years.

To hear the Experimental Talking Clock  —

To hear an excerpt   —  
For help playing these sounds, click here.

The recording has four basic sections:
  • 0:00-0:21 Indistinct speech
  • 0:22-0:33 Lambert clearly heard calling out hours
  • 0:34-1:10 'Silent' period
  • 1:11-1:40 Indistinct speech, possibly reversed
Portions of the fourth section (1:11-1:40) sound as if they may have been recorded in reverse, that is, with the phonograph cranked counter-clockwise.

To hear the fourth section reversed   —  

Notice in the second section, Lambert skips "10 o'clock"!

– The 1878 Lambert phonograph –
Front view of the 1878 Lambert phonograph
Front view
Side view of the 1878 Lambert phonograph
Side view

Aaron Cramer, discoverer of the 1878 Lambert phonograph, invited to his Brooklyn, New York home to transfer and preserve the sound recording from the lead cylinder.

Aaron Cramer operating the Lambert phonograph, April 1999
Aaron Cramer operating the Lambert phonograph, April 1999
Close-up of the lead cylinder
Close-up of the lead cylinder

The recording appears to have been recorded at an average of about 85 revolutions per minute.   However, in several passages the actual recording speed fluctuates – sometimes wildly; Lambert may have done this intentionally as part of his experiments, since he was clearly able to achieve a comparatively smooth recording speed during the portion where he is heard distinctly calling out hours.

Hopefully, clever audio sleuths will be able to smooth out and conquer many of the mysterious passages of this time capsule.   Perhaps some of the blaring passages were meant as a type of gong or chime!   If you are able to make out any additional words or phrases, please let me know.   (Many people have sent in their fascinating analyses.   One of the more interesting findings: A few have reported hearing "Jingle Bells" (written 1857) sung off-tempo in the fourth section reversed.)

The device is listed in both Guinness Book of World Records and The Encyclopedia of Recorded Sound in The United States as the world's oldest playable phonograph recording.

To learn more about the Lambert phonograph, see Aaron Cramer and Allen Koenigsberg's article (part 1) (part 2) provided courtesy of Collector Cafe.

To hear other examples of wax cylinders, see the

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