The Museum of Lost Sounds

More

A radio pioneer once imagined he could listen back through time. Now you can, in a way, thanks to a Cornell archive.

Radiolab_615.jpg

Alexis Madrigal

What if you could build a radio so powerful that you could detect sounds made long ago?

This, obviously, is impossible, but that's not what Guglielmo Marconi, one of radio's early pioneers, believed.

"Marconi became convinced that sound never dies," Nate DiMeo, of the podcast The Memory Palace, tells it.

In his 60s, having suffered a series of heart attacks, Marconi dreamed "of a device that would let him hear lost sounds, let him tap into these eternal frequencies. He would tell people that if he got it right, he could hear Jesus of Nazareth giving the Sermon on the Mount."

DiMeo continues, "At the end of his life he could sit in his piazza in Rome, and hear everything that was ever said to him or about him. He could relive every toast and testimonial. And we all could -- hear everything: Hear Caesar. Hear Shakespeare give an actor a line-reading. Hear my grandmother introduce herself to my grandfather at a nightclub in Rhode Island. Hear someone tell you that they love you, that first time they told you they loved you. Hear everything, forever."

You can listen to DiMeo tell the story here:

It's a beautiful fantasy -- an Earth littered with lost sounds, just waiting to be revived by the right antenna.

Marconi was wrong about the method, but today, in an era of ubiquitous sound recording, we hear old sounds all the time. Of course, they're made new again each time we play them, but in a sense, each time you listen to a piece of music, a podcast, or whatever else, you are reviving a lost sound.

This is what I think about as I explore Cornell University's new sound archive, courtesy of its ornithology lab. With something like 150,000 audio recordings of about 9,000 species (mostly birds but also whales, frogs, bats, elephants, and many more). With each file, you can listen to the animal's sound (sometimes also watch it in a video) and sometimes see a map pinning the location where it was recorded. Here's a song sparrow singing in 1929. Here's an ostrich chick while still inside an egg in 1966. Here's are some rabbits playing around in Alberta, Canada, in 1973. 

It's not Marconi's all-powerful antenna, but these recordings preserve in little snippets the thrum of life scattered across this Earth.

Jump to comments
Presented by

Rebecca J. Rosen is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Business Channel. She was previously an associate editor at The Wilson Quarterly.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

The Time JFK Called the Air Force to Complain About a 'Silly Bastard'

51 years ago, President John F. Kennedy made a very angry phone call.


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Adventures in Legal Weed

Colorado is now well into its first year as the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. How's it going? James Hamblin visits Aspen.

Video

What Makes a Story Great?

The storytellers behind House of CardsandThis American Life reflect on the creative process.

Video

Tracing Sriracha's Origin to Thailand

Ever wonder how the wildly popular hot sauce got its name? It all started in Si Racha.

Video

Where Confiscated Wildlife Ends Up

A government facility outside of Denver houses more than a million products of the illegal wildlife trade, from tigers and bears to bald eagles.

Video

Is Wine Healthy?

James Hamblin prepares to impress his date with knowledge about the health benefits of wine.

Video

The World's Largest Balloon Festival

Nine days, more than 700 balloons, and a whole lot of hot air

Writers

Up
Down

More in Technology

Just In