History of Recorded Sound: Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville’s Phonautograph

It all begins here with the phonoautograph. We discovered this week that Thomas Edison wasn’t the first person to record sound. If you’re interested in the birth of recording, do yourself a favor and check out NPR’s story about Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville, whose recording of Clair de Lune pre-dates Edison’s “Mary had a little lamb” by almost 20 years.

According to the NY Times:

The 10-second recording of a singer crooning the folk song “Au Clair de la Lune” was discovered earlier this month in an archive in Paris by a group of American audio historians. It was made, the researchers say, on April 9, 1860, on a phonautograph, a machine designed to record sounds visually, not to play them back. But the phonautograph recording, or phonautogram, was made playable — converted from squiggles on paper to sound — by scientists at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, Calif.

… Scott’s device had a barrel-shaped horn attached to a stylus, which etched sound waves onto sheets of paper blackened by smoke from an oil lamp. The recordings were not intended for listening; the idea of audio playback had not been conceived. Rather, Scott sought to create a paper record of human speech that could later be deciphered.

But the Lawrence Berkeley scientists used optical imaging and a “virtual stylus” on high-resolution scans of the phonautogram, deploying modern technology to extract sound from patterns inscribed on the soot-blackened paper almost a century and a half ago.

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