They all laughed at Christopher Columbus
When he said the world was round,
They all laughed when Edison recorded sound...
— lyric, "They All Laughed," George and
Anyone involved in sound engineering these days must be
familiar with computer programs such as Pro Tools or at least the freeware
called Audacity. These programs display sound recordings in the form of waves which can then be manipulated by the engineer. Click on the print
icon and you have a futuristic pattern generated by high technology... or do
you? Someone beat you to it as early as 1860. They also beat Thomas Edison by
17 years at the game of "recording" sound.
Now, don't get your hopes up. It took today's sophisticated computer equipment to
play back the recording, made in 1860 (the fact that it was able to be decoded at all is remarkable, nonetheless). You see, the device which made the
recording, the Phonautogram, was intended to create a graphical image of sounds
with the hopes that the sound waves could be deciphered back to words, rather
than played as they were recorded. The Phonautogram was invented by one
Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville, who published a paper about his idea for
sound recording as early as January of 1857. To his first paper he attached two
soot-covered glass plates, each with scribbles where a needle had removed some
of the soot. The paper and the plates were placed with the French Academy of
Scott received a patent for the concept of Fixation Graphique de la Voix
and the Phonautogram in March of 1857. The patented Phonautogram contained a
diaphragm attached to a needle which would etch sound waves on soot-covered
paper wrapped around a barrel-shaped cylinder. A second needle recorded the sine wave created by a
tuning fork which provided the calibration necessary to graph sound,
compensating for fluctuations in the rotation of the cylinder.
Who's On First?
It took until 1877 for Thomas Edison to record, and play back, the tune "Mary
Had A Little Lamb" on the first phonograph. As early as the 1890s Karl Ferdinand
Braun invented the Cathode-Ray Tube Oscilloscope, a novelty for students of
physics. It wasn't until the 1930s that the first calibrated oscilloscope was
invented by a company later to be absorbed by the Raytheon Corporation. Although
this early oscilloscope was used predominately by the military in World War II,
it provided a "view" of electronic waves not unlike the view of sound waves made
possible by the Phonautogram. It would be over twenty years until the "memory
scope;" an oscilloscope which could freeze, save and print a waveform; was
invented by the Tektronix Company. Of course, photography made it possible to
capture the instant of an oscilloscope's screen image, but still, the
Phonautogram captured waves over several seconds' time.
Inventor Scott intended his creation to be the birth of a way to store speech
and later decipher it. However, he was quite upset when Edison announced his
recording machine, capable of audio playback. Scott's 1878 autobiography rails
at Edison for incorrectly naming his device a "phonograph," stating that it did
not mean the reproduction of sound, but the "writing of speech." Scott died in
1879. It makes little sense that Scott was so angry at Edison. Scott's last
submission to the Academy of Sciences in France restated the fact that his
instrument was to assist in the study of vocal inflections, and in fact included
instructions on how to "read" a recording made on the Phonautogram.
Turning Speech Into Writing
Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville was a printer and librarian, not a student
of physics. Prior to his work with voice recording he wrote a book about
stenography. Indeed, Scott had loftier dreams than did Edison. While Edison
was concerned with sound reproduction, Scott intended his work to be the
foundation of a speech-writing machine. IBM took over a hundred years to
achieve that goal, with its ViaVoice® software in
1991 (and the first release of that software didn't work really well).
Today, of course, computer voice recognition is
taken for granted. First used in telephone robots to route calls,
"type-as-you-talk" software has become a reality. Most cellular phones are
available with a "hands-free" voice-dial feature that allows one to speak the
name of the person or business to be called (after it's been "taught" to
recognize the name). The web search engine Google very recently launched a
completely voice-driven telephone directory service.
Hearing The Voice Recorded Over A Hundred Years Ago
Scott's recording was turned into sound thanks to a collaborative of
scientists and lay persons dedicated to making the earliest sound recordings
broadly available. The collaborative, "First Sounds," was established in 2007 by
the owners of Archeophone Records in Champaign, Illinois.
Careful copies of an 1860 Phonautograph recording on parchment paper were
made, and then the waveforms "traced" with a sophisticated, computer-generated "stylus." After
significant efforts were made to remove noise from the recording (again with the aid of today's most sophisticated computer hardware and software), First Sounds
made the first recording available to the public: a ten-second excerpt from "Au
Clair de la Lune," sung by a woman. They'd taken stabs at reproducing earlier,
uncalibrated versions of phonautograph recordings and came up with nothing but
On March 27, 2008, historian David Giovannoni, Patrick Feaster of Indiana
University, Bloomington IN; and sound engineer Richard Martin played the filtered
recording, the oldest viable sound recording existent, to attendees at a press
conference held on the campus of Stanford University.
First Sounds describes the significance of their achievement in their
Until this discovery, the earliest recordings of the human voice known
to be capable of reproduction were those made by Thomas Edison in 1877, and
the earliest surviving recordings of certain date available to the public
for listening were from 1888. "Au clair de la lune" proves that the human
voice was recorded on April 9, 1860 well enough to allow the results to be
played back and recognized, and it pushes our audible past back from 1888 by
nearly a generation. "Au clair de la lune" is the oldest recognizable sound
recording made from the atmosphere, the oldest surviving musical recording,
and the oldest recording of identifiable words.