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Making Dead People’s Pulses Beat Again

A new device can transform 150-year-old printed representations of heart beats into actual sound

(Photo: Kirn Vintage Stock/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

Artist Dario Robleto often finds his inspiration in subjects like time, death and preservation and creates works with titles like "Candles Un-burn, Suns Un-shine, Death Un-dies." So when he met sound media historian Patrick Feaster, who specializes in phonographs and, in his free time, puts sound to normally silent medical patterns, the two hit it off. As the New York Times reports, their combined expertise recently led to a project that resurrects centuries-old written recordings of heartbeats

The Times:

Efforts to record the pattern of human heartbeats — the wavy lines so familiar on hospital monitors — go back at least to 1854, when a German scientist pressed a weighted plate against an artery, connected it to a stylus made of a strand of hair, and traced the pulsations on a moving strip of paper blackened by the soot of an oil lamp.

Feaster and Robleto created a new digital processing technique to translate those 2D ink-and-paper representations of heartbeats back into sound. The oldest recordings they recreated date back to 1854. Another, first transcribed in 1869, belonged to a 100-year-old Frenchman born in 1769. 

Originally, Feaster and Robleto viewed the project as a purely artistic endeavor. As Feaster told the Times: "I’m not sure what we stand to learn from these recordings, but there is a certain sense of access to the pulse from hearing it that I don’t think anybody would get from just looking at a wavy line on a piece of paper." But O.H. Frazier, a cardiac surgeon, told the Times that the resurrected heartbeats could "open up a new arena to be studied.”

Feaster and Robleto's work is on exhibit at Houston's Menil Collection until January 4. 

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