On February 26, 1944, before shipping out to the South Pacific, my father walked into a USO in Hollywood, California, and recorded a wax-over-cardboard 76 RPM record for my mother (see photograph). On it, he talks about how much he loves her; how sorry he is they waited so long to get married (his voice breaks when he says this); and how important the task is he and his comrades face overseas.
He had just turned 24, and they had been married for less than a year.
I thought of my father’s record when I saw the Associated Press had issued an unintentionally appropriate holiday story last week. It seems that the Smithsonian Institution had, for 130 years, the original wax discs on which Alexander Graham Bell recorded his original experiments in voice, the ones that culminated in the invention of the telephone. Scientists couldn’t hear what was on them, however, because the device that played them hadn’t survived as long. Finally, through the use of a 3D camera and laser, they were able to read the grooves on the discs and reproduce the sounds.
Does this sound familiar? Anybody out there with VHS tapes lying around without a working VHS player? As Christmas day and the exchanging of new electronic gadgets takes place, let this be a lesson to you. How are you going to preserve your content – text, photos, video, voice – when the gadget goes obsolete? As the Bell example shows, this is not a new problem.
Players need content and content needs players, whether it’s a 76 RPM record from the 40s, an 8-track tape from the 1970s, or a CD from the 2000s. How many of you had super 8mm movies transferred onto VHS tape, only to find that you know have to have them transferred onto DVDs? As one wise comedian recently opined, “Can we all please agree to just ignore whatever product comes after DVDs? I really don’t want to have to start my movie collection over … again.”
You may think that with CD/DVD drives in computers that you’re safe. Forget about it. Even some CD-ROMs (that is, the disks that hold software applications, not those that play music) aren’t interchangeable. This is why I have never been able to get rid of a laptop. The oldest one only plays my Scrabble CD. The second-oldest one holds my favorite casino games and my recipes, because those applications have not been replicated for Windows 7, or if they have, not for the operating system on my latest computer, Windows 7 64-bit.
Bottom line: I had to take the computers offline so that Microsoft can’t automatically update the operating system anymore. That’s the only way I can access my meticulously input recipes and other applications. I could print the recipes out on paper, but that kind of defeats the purpose of the software (and it’s harder to search for a recipe that uses both, say, chicken and paprika).
But you can’t print out voice recordings. This is why I urge you to be very, very cognizant of your electronic gadgets this holiday season. Think about how you’re going to preserve that recording as technology changes. You don’t want to end up with a 78 RPM wax-on-cardboard record that’s an amazing piece of family history without any way of playing with it.
That’s why I bought a record player from Restoration Hardware a few years ago, one manufactured by Crosley, which specializes in retro radios, record players, and jukeboxes. It would play my old 45s (if I hadn’t downloaded them all from iTunes), as well as 33-1/3 RPM records (if I hadn’t bought the CDs). As much as I deride single-purpose devices, I bought this for one reason, and one reason alone. It’s to hear my father try to soothe my mother’s fears from so many years ago.
So that’s the cautionary tale of Christmas. When you’re buying gifts this season, don’t just think about future technology. Think about past technology as well. Thanks to that Crosley, my father’s voice won’t be lost for 130 years before they find the right technology to hear it again.