Scientific Collections



1877 – Thomas Alva Edison develops the phonograph, a device using wax cylinders and the vertical cut technique to record and reproduce sound events. This is the first time it has been possible to fix acoustic phenomena in a reproducible form.

1887 – Invention of the gramophone by Emile Berliner. The gramophone cuts laterally, enabling recordings to be made on macro-groove (shellac) discs.

1899 – The Vienna Phonogram Archives, founded at the Austrian Academy of Sciences, are the world’s first phonographic sound archives. They focus mainly and in equal measure on music, speech and “voice portraits.” Similar institutions soon followed in, for example, Paris, London, Berlin and St. Petersburg.

1900 – The first sound documents for what shortly afterward became the Berlin Phonogram Archives are produced when the psychologist Carl Stumpf records on an Edison phonograph a performance in Berlin by Thai court musicians.

1901 – Stumpf pursues other objectives than the Viennese in founding the Berlin Phonogram Archives, which as a university collection are initially attached to the University’s Institute of Psychology.

1904 – The schoolteacher Wilhelm Doegen looks into gramophone recording of the spoken word. His aim is to make the phonetic transcription of languages easier to teach with the aid of sound recordings. His initial interest is in using records as a phonetic aid in teaching English.

1909 – Publication of a series of “Doegen’s Workbooks For Independent Learning of Foreign Languages with the Aid of Phonetic Transcription and the Speech Machine.” It is the first language course to combine phonetics and sound recordings.

1910 – Doegen gives a presentation on “Sound Recordings for the Purpose of Language Research and Teaching” at the Brussels World Expo. He is awarded a silver medal.

1912 – Around 1,000 schools and a number of universities use Doegen’s records to teach languages.

1914 – Wilhelm Doegen submits to the Education Ministry his “Proposals for the Establishment of a Prussian Royal Phonetics Institute”. This application forms the basis of the “Prussian Royal Phonographic Commission” and consists of the following components: “1. Languages of all nations of the world; 2. All German dialects; 3. Music and songs of all nations of the world; 4. Voices of leading public figures; 5. Miscellaneous.” This is an early indication of the structure of the Sound Department that was institutionalized in 1920.

1915 – Foundation of the “Prussian Royal Phonographic Commission” headed by Carl Stumpf and Wilhelm Doegen as its Executive Secretary. Over 30 German linguists, musicologists and anthropologists, all of them men, were appointed as members of the Commission.

1915-1918 – During World War I the Phonographic Commission makes secret voice and music recordings in German internment camps with the aim of recording the prisoners’ languages and their traditional music systematically on the basis of methodical principles and working on them with the aid of the text material provided. In the process 1,651 gramophone studies (mainly speech documents but also music recordings) were made by Wilhelm Doegen and 1,022 wax cylinders (music only) were recorded by the musicologist Georg Schünemann.

1917 – Ludwig Darmstaedter establishes with Wilhelm Doegen at the Prussian State Library a “Voice Collection to Accompany the Darmstaedter Autograph Collection.” The voice collection consisted at that time of 41 “voice portraits” of well-known public figures.

1920 – The Phonographic Commission is officially disbanded. Wilhelm Doegen sets up the Sound Archives. At the instigation of Adolf von Harnack it is attached to the Prussian State Library as its Sound Department. Its inventories consist mainly of the gramophone recordings made in prisoner of war camps during WWI (the wax cylinders with the music recordings found their way into the Phonogram Archives). There are also a number of Doegen’s language teaching records and his recordings of the voices of public figures.

1922-1944 – The Sound Department continues collecting. A personal information form with transcriptions and, as appropriate, translations documents each recording.

1931 – Supervision of the Sound Department is assigned to the University (Doegen is dismissed for a while for a breach of budget regulations).

1933 – The African studies and phonetics specialist Diedrich Westermann takes over as head of the Sound Department. Doegen makes no more recordings.

1934 – The Sound Department becomes the Institute for Sound Research and is incorporated into the University by Ministerial decree.

1935 – The Institute is divided into three sections, each headed by a specialist: 1. a linguistics department (Diedrich Westermann); 2. a phonetics lab (Franz Wethlo); 3. a music department (Fritz Bose). Bose catalogs the music recordings as “Lieder der Völker” and work on some of the speech recordings is published.

1939-1941 – During WWII the voices of prisoners of war in Germany and in France, especially African PoWs in France, are recorded. All the master copies are lost in the war but the Institute survives.

1947 – Wilhelm Doegen is appointed head of the Sound Archives’ scientific library and a professor of English studies at the Pädagogische Hochschule in Berlin. The Institute for Sound Research is renamed Institute of Comparative Phonetics, with Diedrich Westermann still at the helm.

1951 – The Institute of Comparative Phonetics is renamed the Institute of Phonetics.

1962-1969 – The Institute of Phonetics and Communication Science is established and incorporates the Sound Archives.

1969 – The Institute of Phonetics and Communication Science ceases to be a separate institution and is incorporated into the Rehabilitation Pedagogics/Communication Science Section as a Department of Phonetics/Linguistics. In this new facility little or no attention is paid to the Sound Archives. The record collection is housed at different university sites in the course of subsequent moves and restructurings of scientific institutions.

1975 – The music ethnologist Jürgen Elsner has the collection rehoused at the Humboldt-Universität’s Institute for Musicology, Am Kupfergraben 5.

1990 – Dieter Mehnert assumes responsibility for the collection in the 1990s.

1996 – Mehnert presents a first summary report on the Sound Archives and an overview of its material.

1997 – The Sound Archives are added to the collections project of the Humboldt- Universität’s Hermann von Helmholtz Center for Cultural Techniques and benefit from Volkswagen Foundation funding. The initiators of this project are the art historian Horst Bredekamp and the mathematician Jochen Brüning.

1999 – Systematic indexing of the Archives at the Helmholtz Center for Cultural Techniques by the music ethnologist Jürgen Mahrenholz. Due to renovation work at Am Kupfergraben 5 the Archives move temporarily to Burgstraße 26.

2000-2001 – Presentation of the Sound Archives in the Humboldt-Universität’s “Theater der Natur und Kunst” exhibition in the Berlin Martin Gropius Building.

2002 – Following completion of the renovation of Am Kupfergraben 5 the Sound Archives are rehoused at the Department of Musicology.

2007 – By the end of the VW Foundation funding 6,400 recordings on shellac are digitized, recorded in the “Kabinette des Wissens” database and made researchable online. At the same time Jürgen Mahrenholz’s custodianship of the Sound Archives ends because the university management makes no further funding available. Inquiries are now handled mainly by Michael Willenbücher, who is in charge of the database.

2007 – The documentary “The Halfmoon Files – A Ghost Story…” (screenplay and director Philip Scheffner) is given its world premiere at the Berlinale film festival. It wins the Goethe Institute’s documentary film prize, the sponsorship prize of the city of Duisburg, is voted the best documentary at the International Independent Film Festival in Mar del Plata, Argentina, is awarded the Prix des Mediatheques at the International Documentary Festival in Marseilles and wins the award for the best documentation and research at the Memorimage Festival in Reus, Spain.

2007/2008 – The “Making of … The Halfmoon Files” exhibition, curated by Britta Lange and Philip Scheffner, is held at the Kunstraum Kreuzberg/Bethanien in Berlin.

2011 – The English version of the “Making of … The Halfmoon Files” exhibition is shown in Mumbai and Delhi.

2011 – Melanie Wald-Fuhrmann, Professor of Music Sociology and Historic Anthropology of Music at the Humboldt-Universität, assumes responsibility for the Sound Archives and initiates cataloging and conservation work (until she leaves the Humboldt-Universität in 2013).

2013 – The Sound Archives are a cooperation partner of a DFG-funded project of the Phonogram Archives at the Berlin Museum of Ethnology to index and digitize the sound recordings of the Prussian Phonographic Commission between 1915 and 1918 (project director: Lars-Christian Koch of the Berlin State Museums).

2013 – The Sound Archives are an associate partner of the international research association on Cultural Exchange in a Time of Global Conflict: Colonials, Neutrals and Belligerents during the First World War, funded by Humanities in the European Research Area (HERA), project director: Heike Liebau, Centre for Modern Oriental Studies, Berlin).

2013 – Premises for the Sound Archives are included in the final construction plans for the Humboldt Forum on Schloßplatz in Berlin. The Humboldt-Universität’s concept provides for the Sound Archives moving into the Humboldt Forum as the only university collection to do so. The Phonogram Archives of the Berlin Museum of Ethnology are to join them there.

2013-2014 – The Sound Archives receive over 150 inquiries for exhibitions, research, teaching and art projects in connection with the centenary of the First World War, including inquiries by the BBC International, NTR (Dutch public radio), ZDF, RBB, Deutsches Historisches Museum, Haus der Geschichte Baden-Württemberg, Blixa Bargeld, King’s College London, Archive and Public Culture Research Initiative (University of Cape Town), and Columbia University New York. With no custodian appointed, inquiries are handled by staff of the Technical Department (Michael Willenbücher), the Institute of Cultural Science (Britta Lange), the Helmholtz Center (Jochen Hennig), and the University’s musicologists (Sarah Grossert).

2014 – The Presidium of the Humboldt-Universität assigns responsibility for the Sound Archives to the Helmholtz Center for Cultural Techniques.

2014 – The Humboldt-Universität’s Academic Senate adopts collection regulations that constitute a commitment by the university to its collections and for the first time allocates responsibilities for them.

2016 – To mark the centenary of the first recordings made by the Phonographic Commission the Sound Archives hold an international conference in cooperation with the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science and the University of Amsterdam that combines cultural and science history perspectives and current projects for the Sound Archives.

2016 – The musicologist Sebastian Klotz and the cultural scientist Britta Lange are appointed as directors of the collection.

2018-2020 - Herdis Kley becomes Head of Collections.

2020 - Since December 2020, Christopher Li is Head of Collections and Custodian at the Berlin Lautarchiv.

2021-2022 - In preparation for the relocation of the archive from Kupfergraben to the Humboldt Forum, a general inventory is conducted.

2022 - In July 2022, the Lautarchiv moves its holdings of historical shellac records into the new archive rooms at the Humboldt Forum.