A hand crank turned the cylinder under a stylus that would move up and down over the foil, recording the sound waves created by the operator's voice. The stylus would eventually tear the foil after just a few playbacks, and the person demonstrating the technology would typically tear up the tinfoil and hand the pieces out as souvenirs, according to museum curator Chris Hunter.
Popping noises heard on this recording are likely from scars left from where the foil was folded up for more than a century.
"Realistically, once you played it a couple of times, the stylus would tear through it and destroy it," he said.
Only a handful of the tinfoil recording sheets are known to known to survive, and of those, only two are playable: the Schenectady museum's and an 1880 recording owned by The Henry Ford museum in Michigan.
Hunter said he was able to determine just this week that the man's voice on the museum's 1878 tinfoil recording is believed to be that of Thomas Mason, a St. Louis newspaper political writer who also went by the pen name I.X. Peck.
Edison company records show that one of his newly invented tinfoil phonographs, serial No. 8, was sold to Mason for $95.50 in April 1878, and a search of old newspapers revealed a listing for a public phonograph program being offered by Peck on June 22, 1878, in St. Louis, the curator said.
A woman's voice says the words "Old Mother Hubbard," but her identity remains a mystery, he said. Three weeks after making the recording, Mason died of sunstroke, Hunter said.
A Connecticut woman donated the tinfoil to the Schenectady museum in 1978 for an exhibit on the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Edison company that later merged with another to form GE. The woman's father had been an antiques dealer in the Midwest and counted the item among his favorites, Hunter said.