Phonautograph

By now many readers will have heard about a ghostly recording, made on April 7, 1860, of a woman's voice singing a snippet from the traditional French song "Au clair de la Lune," that was introduced on March 27, 2008, at the Association of Recorded Sound Collections conference in Palo Alto. The presentation was the work of First Sounds, a group of experts in the field of the earliest recorded sounds. Just ten seconds in length, the visual sound wave recording was made in Paris on a Phonoautogram by experimenter Léon Scott de Martinville (1817-1879); its sound was reconstructed from a paper tracing of the wave using a computer program developed at the Library of Congress.

Press reports about this rediscovered recording have been somewhat misleading. In the space of mere days, phrases like "Move Over Thomas Edison" have started popping up in headlines, suggesting that Léon Scott somehow scooped Thomas Edison. But this mis-characterizes the true significance of this discovery and what it means to the history of recorded sound, so some clarification is in order.

Thomas Edison never claimed to have invented sound recording. What he did invent was the phonograph -- the first device of any kind capable of playing sound back. Edison did so because he was furious about Alexander Graham Bell's invention of the telephone in 1876; Edison's whole career up to that point was invested heavily in telegraphic technology, and that Bell had found a new wrinkle -- transmitting a person's voice in lieu of a telegraph key -- was simply unacceptable to him. From that time Edison worked tirelessly to do Bell one better, and his "one per cent inspiration and 99 per cent perspiration" eventually led to the phonograph, built between August and December of 1877. But it wasn't created overnight, nor in a vacuum.

As early as 1854, Léon Scott was experimenting with tracing sound waves -- capturing the vibrations of sound in a visual medium. He used a barrel as a makeshift "horn" to capture a sound, a diaphragm to render that sound into a wave, and a squib to capture the tracing on lampblack. Scott probably never tried to play his recordings back; it was enough to be able to transcribe and view a sound wave at all in the 1850s -- something users of digital recording software take for granted now.

The sound wave of Scott's "Au clair de la Lune" recording is surprisingly well-defined, and sounds amazingly clear in its reconstructed form considering that the majority of Scott's tracings captured little more than the squib being moved around haphazardly by his sound source. The work of First Sounds -- David Giovannini, Patrick Feaster, and others -- confirms that Scott did successfully record true sound in at least this one instance. Before this, the earliest fully verifiable audio recording of any kind was a recording from London's Crystal Palace of a performance of Handel's Israel in Egypt in June 1888. While First Sounds may not be able to stretch the recording curve much past 1860, there is a LOT in between: unplayable items such as Chichester Bell and Sumner Tainter's cylinders from the early to mid-1880s, a few tinfoil recordings Edison made in the 1870s, and Phonautograms made by others than Scott, including one alleged to carry a tracing of the voice of Abraham Lincoln.

Edison in 1888

The AP reported: "The recording predates Thomas Edison's "Mary Had a Little Lamb," which was previously credited as the oldest recorded voice, by 17 years." Not only was Edison's nursery rhyme recording not the first recorded voice (only the first to be replayed successfully), but the sound clip usually played to commemorate Edison's achievement comes from the soundtrack of an early sound newsreel made of Edison in 1927 -- not from the tinfoil cylinder he originally made the recording on. In fact, when Edison first heard his phonograph "talk back" to him, he removed the tinfoil from its mandrel and studied it under a microscope, destroying this fragile "first" recording made in his lab.

In any event, congratulations to First Sounds! You may hear all of their phonoautographic recovery operations at their website, here: First Sounds

and the 1888 Crystal Palace recordings here: Crystal Palace

Photo credits:
Scott's Phonautograph -- Smithsonian Institution
Edison in 1888 -- Edison National Historic Site