Earliest recordings preceded Edison’s
Researchers said Friday that they have played back the oldest audio recording ever made, a 10-second snippet of singing made 17 years before Thomas Alva Edison patented the phonograph.
Using technology originally designed to play records without touching them, a team at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory was able to convert a series of squiggly lines etched onto smoked paper into an ethereal voice singing “Au Clair de la Lune, Pierrot repondit,” a refrain from a French folk song.
The piece was played publicly for the first time Friday morning at a meeting of the Assn. for Recorded Sound Collections at Stanford University by historian David Giovannoni, who unearthed it this month in the archives of the French Academy of Sciences.
“Just to hear that little snippet of sound is, like, Wow, I am communing with the past,” said communications historian Jonathan Sterne of McGill University in West Montreal, Canada, who has listened to it online. “We are playing back a recording that was never meant to be heard.”
The recording of an anonymous singer was made April 9, 1860, on a device known as a phonautograph, invented by Edouard-Leon Scott de Martinville, a Parisian typesetter and tinkerer.
The device was meant to visualize sounds, not play them back.
In essence, the device was very similar to Edison’s phonograph.
A barrel-shaped horn captured the sounds and transferred them to a vibrating stylus. The stylus converted the sound waves into squiggles that were recorded on a sheet of smoked paper that moved under it.
Edison’s key contribution was replacing the smoked paper with a wax cylinder, which allowed the music to be played back. The oldest previously known playable recording, on such a cylinder, was a small segment of a Handel oratorio captured in 1888.
“The devices are so similar that when Edison’s assistants got a working phonograph, people like Alexander Graham Bell, who had been working with a phonautograph, said, ‘Why didn’t I think of that?’ ” Sterne said.
Scott went to his grave arguing that Edison had misappropriated his invention, but he also dismissed Edison’s device, Sterne said. “Scott said Edison didn’t get it; the important invention is writing the sound down, visualizing it,” he said. “Reproducing it is incidental.”
The recordings were discovered by Giovannoni of Derwood, Md., and historian Patrick Feaster of Indiana University, who are among the founders of First Sounds, an organization that aims to “make mankind’s earliest sound recordings available to all people for all time.”
They began searching in December in the French patent office, where they found two phonautograph recordings, or phonautograms, from 1857 and 1859 that Scott had attached to his patent application. Attempts to play them did not produce intelligible sounds, however.
Clues from Scott’s writings then led them to the Academy of Sciences, where this month they found several other phonautograms, including the April 1860 recording.
Giovannoni and Feaster made a high-resolution photograph of the 9-by-25-inch phonautogram and sent it to the Berkeley lab. There, engineers Carl Haber and Earl Cornell used previously developed technology to convert the recording into a digital soundtrack.
Feaster, Giovannoni and First Sounds audio engineer Richard Martin then minimized background noise and removed speed fluctuations resulting from the hand-cranked nature of the apparatus.
The researchers found other phonautograms that date even earlier, but Scott had not yet perfected his device at that point, they said, and the recordings produce only squawks.
The “Au Clair de la Lune” recording can be heard online at www.firstsounds.org/.
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