Discovering Lost Sounds

Apr 24, 2014
Originally published on April 25, 2014 9:10 am

Do you know what a guillotine sounds like? How about a Tiegel semi-automatic stop-cylinder printing press?

These are some of the sounds from past generations that have been lost (sometimes for the better). But the Museum of Work in Norrköping, Sweden, is preserving those sounds.

Here & Now’s Robin Young listens to some of these lost sounds with Torsten Nilsson, curator of the Museum of Work.


  • Torsten Nilsson, curator of the Museum of Work in Norrköping, Sweden.
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Trends past. Animals become extinct. Sounds also die. For instance, do you know what this is?


YOUNG: That, my friend, is a Tiegel semi-automatic stop-cylinder printing press from the late 19th or early 20th century. It was last use professionally in 1987. It's powered by a flywheel. After every imprint, the printer manually removes the paper and then feeds in the new blank sheet. Well, that was obviously not going to last. Or how about this?


YOUNG: Well, thankfully, that has also gone extinct. It's a guillotine. And these are just two of the sounds being archived at the Museum of Work in Norrkoping, Sweden. The museum is housed in an old cotton mill. It aims to document working life and bring its history to life with an archived of old equipment and products. It's funny. In researching this story, we noticed there are museums of work here in the U.S. - one in Woonsocket, Rhode Island, that tells of the French Canadians who came to work in the mills there.

But now, in addition to collecting old artifacts in Sweden, curator Torsten Nilsson is collecting what he calls endangered sounds of the industrial era, and he joins us from the studios of the Swedish Broadcasting Corporation. Torsten, welcome.

TORSTEN NILSSON: Thank you very much.

YOUNG: Well, what was your thinking behind doing this?

NILSSON: We were thinking that we have to do this because nobody's doing it. We live in a society, which is changing very fast so - and we have the technology now. It's quite cheap. It's - sometimes we can't understand what we're doing, so let's do it now.

YOUNG: But so, again, beyond the fact that they're going to disappear, what's important about them?

NILSSON: The important thing is that they are a part of our history. The oldest recording we have in the world is from 1860. It's a French woman singing a song. And that's quite recent that that happened. So we - times are changing very fast, and we don't know how - for instance, I don't know how my hometown sounded hundred years ago.

YOUNG: Hmm. Yeah.

NILSSON: But I sure would want to know.

YOUNG: Well, you miss the sounds from more recently than that. You say you grew up in a small village there. Is there a sound that you miss?

NILSSON: Yeah. When I was a little kid, when I went to bed, I could hear the sound from the small factory in my hometown. They produced paper pulp. And there was a hatch, and I can hear it very, very good in the winter nights, 20 degrees below zero. And it was amazing.

YOUNG: And you miss that.

NILSSON: I miss it, yeah.

YOUNG: Well, let's listen to some of the other sounds that might have been music to other people's ears that you are now gathering. We're just going to let this one play and see if our listeners know what it is.


YOUNG: Torsten, you recorded it. Do you know what it is?

NILSSON: Yeah. I know what it is, but I don't think you're pretty nice to your listeners because they won't have a clue.

YOUNG: They won't have a clue.


YOUNG: What is it?

NILSSON: But I think this was something you used a lot in the countryside. It's a fence-making machine.

YOUNG: Fence making. Now what - this isn't wood. Is it - what kind of fence?

NILSSON: Not like barbed wire, but metallic fences.

YOUNG: And what is the machine doing? What are we hearing?

NILSSON: It's actually in comes a wire, and out comes a fence.


NILSSON: It's quite amazing. And it's a very old machine. It's from the 1930s.

YOUNG: Well - and why might that - I can't think of another way to do that. Why might that become extinct?

NILSSON: Because it's a very small machine. We do fences a lot faster today.

YOUNG: Yeah. And computers have gotten involved in making things. But we're also reminded that computers themselves are replaced constantly. These aren't just very, very old sounds that are endangered. They are more recent sounds that are suddenly very, very old. Let's listen to something that has become ancient history to a lot of people. Guess what this is.


YOUNG: Picture a sick, old IBM desktop, the original PS/1 from 1990 with a floppy disk. Torsten, as you say at your website, IBM made the decision to put the power supply in the monitor, making use of third-party monitors difficult and essentially impractical and limiting the usefulness of this computer if the monitor needed service, hence no more IBM desktops from the 1990s. What does that tell you, Torsten Nilsson, that this machine that was so new just recently is now so old?

NILSSON: Yeah. It tells us that the times are changing very quickly. I would say the last 20 years is like an industrial revolution to us.

YOUNG: All over again, yeah.

NILSSON: Everything is changing.

YOUNG: Yeah. Well - and there's another relatively recent sound that you captured. Let's listen and see if listeners know what this is.


YOUNG: Torsten?


YOUNG: You'd say what?

NILSSON: I say the ones who know this sound, they know the feeling too.


YOUNG: It's a tattoo machine.

NILSSON: Yeah. It hurts.

YOUNG: But again, why would this become extinct?

NILSSON: Because we do a lot of tattoos in Sweden right now. It's very common. And I would say in a couple of years, people will start thinking, oh, my God. Why did we do this?


YOUNG: So you're thinking that that might just not be a preference anymore, and for that reason, it might be in danger. Well, our tattoo fans in the audience are going to take you up on that.

NILSSON: Yeah, maybe. I would say that all sounds aren't endangered, but they're pretty cool anyway.

YOUNG: Let's listen to another sound. This might be very familiar to people who live on coasts.


YOUNG: It's a shipyard crane. What did you want to say about a shipyard crane sound?

NILSSON: I would like to say that a couple of years ago, Sweden was very famous for building ships. We have nearly no shipbuilding at all in Sweden these days. So here, we have something also changing very fast.

YOUNG: As the industry goes, the sound goes with it.


YOUNG: What are the sounds that you want to collect in the future? I know you want to have 600 or so total. You've got only about 22 now. So you've got some work cut out for you. What sounds are you looking for?

NILSSON: I'm going to record a mill in a couple of days, quite an old one where it's run by waterwheel. And for sure, what I know I'm going to record is chainsaws, of course, from the Swedish forest industry. And we have a lot of chainsaws in Sweden. So that's quite a common sound for us to hear. It's - and it's very noisy and aggressive. That one we will record. And also an air compressor from Atlas Copco made 1905 for a mine. So it pumped compressed air into the mine.

YOUNG: Well, we know that your project is in part supported by the EU. What do people say to you about this when you mention it there in Sweden? Does everybody have a sound that they come up with? What do people say to you?

NILSSON: Yeah. People are very interested in sounds, and a lot of people come up with a lot of ideas about what we should record. I have one person very close to me. She says she loves the sound of a washing machine. Not the noisy part, the trembling, but actually the washing part. And also, the sound, the tone of the city is changing very much. Today, it's harder to find silence than to find sounds. We would say that silence is the most endangered thing.

YOUNG: Yeah, the most endangered sound. Fascinating. That's Torsten Nilsson, curator at the Museum of Work in Norrkoping, Sweden, collecting and archiving what he calls endangered sounds of the industrial era. Torsten, thanks so much for sharing them with us.

NILSSON: Thank you very much.

YOUNG: OK, Jeremy. We have time for one last one.



YOUNG: Listen. What is this?


HOBSON: That's a Polaroid camera.

YOUNG: You got it.

HOBSON: Yup, I did. And I - and by the way, I did not know. You did not tell me beforehand.

YOUNG: You didn't know. Let's hear it again.


YOUNG: People, it's a sound of history right there.

HOBSON: That's right. I don't know if you can even find those anymore.

YOUNG: HERE AND NOW is a production of NPR and WBUR Boston, in association with the BBC World Service. I'm Robin Young.

HOBSON: I'm Jeremy Hobson. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.