Flag conservation

Flag conservation
Textile conservator, Gwen Spicer of Spicer Art Conservation at work

Friday, August 3, 2012

Update: Edison's tinfoil, can the sounds on it be retrieved?

by Barbara Owens
When we first talked about SAC having the honor of doing the conservation work on Edison’s tinfoil back in April (see the blog entry from April 19th), we said that the foil was being prepared for digital scanning in an effort to retrieve the sound imbedded upon it more than 130 years ago.  As we at SAC researched Edison’s life, we discovered that when this particular tinfoil was made, Edison had only one phonograph, and it was he who traveled the country, demonstrating it in hopes he could find buyers for his fabulous new invention.  The bottom line is that Edison’s voice is probably on it.  

How exciting is that?

Edison tinfoil, art conservation, before treatment by conservator Gwen Spicer
Edison's tinfoil before treatment.
As far as we know there are only two complete tinfoils in existence: the one that we treated, which is owned by "miSci" the The Museum for Innovation and Science (formerly the Schenectady Museum), and a second, which is owned by the Smithsonian.  Here’s the interesting tidbit, the one at the Smithsonian had been glued, facedown, to a board.  Getting sound from it is going to be a challenge.

The Schenectady tinfoil, that SAC treated, which had been folded several times and then crammed into an envelope, required extensive flattening before it could be scanned.  And so, after some nerve-racking and incredibly delicate treatment, it left SAC’s studio and has traveled to California where the sound is being carefully coaxed from its surfaces.  So the big question is: who is on it and what did they say?

Edison tinfoil after art conservation treatment by objects conservator Gwen Spicer, scanning
Scanning the Edison foil. photo from Schenectady Museum
The short answer right now is that the tinfoil has been scanned and they definitely found sound on it.  Who is speaking?  Right now we know there is a conversation between a man and a woman.  Could it be it Edison?  Stay tuned for information as it unfolds, and visit the miSci (The Museum for Innovation and Science, Schenectady NY) for more information.  

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