J. A. Pryse 2016-05-12 11:31:01
Archival archaeology—or the unearthing of the historical evolution of materials through their creation, collection, preservation, and, oftentimes, decay—is routine for the Digitization Division at the Oklahoma Historical Society (OHS). For decades, OHS has preserved antiquated and obsolete playback equipment dating from statehood through the present day, resulting in a large collection of magnetic steel wire of various lengths, stored on comparatively weighty metal spools. One of these obsolete machines was a Webster-Chicago Electronic Memory Recorder, which lay dormant, vacant of life, and entombed within the audiovisual vault, preserved for future archival archaeologists. This Webster-Chicago Electronic Memory Recorder, respectfully named Big Bertha Webster, weighs around thirty-seven pounds without individual recordings attached. She is accompanied by a sturdy microphone—the size of a child’s hand—with a heavy metal designer casing attached by a peculiar three-pin Cinch Jones connector. Finding All the Right Pieces Recently, Bertha was removed from her ossuary for examination in the Digitization Studio. Each knob, switch, button, and mechanism had been carefully designed to reflect its purpose and the aesthetics of her era—the beauty of Bertha stopped patrons and staff in their tracks as they walked past. But the decision to resurrect Bertha in order to learn more about the time she represented came with complexities and challenges. The family of short-lived wire machines to which Bertha belonged stirred intrigue, but also presented the challenge of finding enthusiasts, long-retired archivists, and elders who had firsthand knowledge of how such machines worked. We vigorously combed through storage and collection repositories and placed a call for donations of operational or non-operational wire recorder machines. The Digitization Studio slowly transformed into a laboratory of mad science. Bertha, now laid out, disemboweled, and poised for autopsy, was accompanied by her new companions. Electronic schematics—highlighted, starred, and strewn about—lent a feeling of inventive re-discovery. Pieces were laboriously cleaned, oiled, and repaired from each specimen. Each fuse, lamp, and guide was tested for vitality. A two-pin Jones plug was ordered from an audio-enthusiast found online and wired into Bertha, then patched into the jackfield for digitization. Each piece found its proper place within Bertha’s body to provide the essential breath of life. Sounds from the Past Finally, she was ready. Turning the tone switch in a clockwise direction caused Bertha to stir; a low humming accompanied a slight glimmer of light which struggled to illuminate the clear glass bulb that signified the machine was on. Inside the machine, gears turned and wires fired. it was time to test the playback module. An unmarked spool of steel wire was selected and placed on the uptake left wheel. A larger metal wheel was situated on the right to catch and wind the played wire. Between the two playback wheels was a spool that steadily rose and fell, guiding the wire evenly from one to the other. Bertha began to sing, and we heard a rather humorous recording of a young girl and her family: “I’m jist a girl who cain’t say no, / Cain’t seem to say it at all / I hate to disserpoint a beau / When he is payin’ a call! Fer a while / I ack refined and cool, / A settin on the velveteen setee / Nen I think of thet ol’ golden rule, / And do fer him what he would do fer me! / I cain’t resist a Romeo In a sombrero and chaps / Soon as I sit on their laps / Somethin’ inside of me snaps I cain’t say no!” – from Oklahoma! by Rodgers and Hammerstein With a laugh, a man chimes in, a screen door slams shut, and we are suddenly transported to the 1940s, where a father, mother, sisters, and uncle sit around this then state-of-the-art magnetic wire machine. They talk of war, boyfriends, the separation of men and women on baseball teams, and school. Jokes are made about men named Hugo (“Who go?”) and Hugh Askew (“Who Asked You?”). Listening to their uninterrupted banter, it’s as if we, too, can taste the lemonade being served and feel the sun through the window. Become an Archival Archaeologist Resurrecting Bertha has unlocked priceless moments which would have been otherwise forgotten. Recordings of specific dialect, tones, cadence, and period phrases provide a sense of the time they were created in and contribute to research in linguistics, history, and sociology. To accurately study our cultural heritage and history requires the exploration of all types of recorded sound from wax cylinders to vinyl recordings and from magnetic wire to magnetic tape. Selective convenience of available playback equipment relegates moments in time inequitably, leading to incomplete historical knowledge. Through education, practice, and community engagement, we can become archival archaeologists, unearthing old equipment and restoring them to working order, so we can digitize and preserve the cultural material they hold. For more information on Bertha’s journey to life, go to http://www.japryse.com/#!journey-of-big-bertha-webster-the-wire/trm9a.
Published by Society of American Archivists. View All Articles.