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First Audio Recording of a Human Voice was made 150 Years Ago Today

For more than a hundred years, the history books have noted that Thomas Edison’s words, “Mary had a little lamb,” inscribed on tin foil and played back, were the first recordings of a human voice into a visible medium. But in fact, a French inventor and tinkerer named Edouard-Leon Scott de Martinville achieved such a recording 17 year earlier, on April 8, 1860, using a device he had patented three years prior.

Leon Scott’s device, which was called the phonoautograph, had a barrel-shaped horn attached to a stylus made of a boar’s tail hair. The stylus etched sound waves onto sheets of paper blackened by smoke from an oil lamp. A later version (shown at right) used lamp-blackened paper on a drum or cylinder. Another version drew a line on a roll of paper.

Unfortunately for Leon Scott, his invention allowed only for recording – not for playback.

So it wasn’t until 2008 that researchers at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, Calif., were able to convert his etchings to a digital format. Using a virtual stylus created by computers, the digitized etching was converted to sound by lead researcher and audio historian David Giovannoni and his team at Creative Sounds. The recording is now licensed by First Sounds.

When the recording was first recreated, researchers mistook the voice for that of a woman or a child, singing a familiar French folk song, “Au Clair de la Lune.” Later the playback speed was adjusted and it was determined that the voice was most likely that of Leon Scott himself. The original phonoautogram can be heard here.*

1860-Scott-Au-Clair-de-la-Lune-05-09.mp3

In its day, the invention was more or less a laboratory oddity used, ocassionally, for precise tuning of a music note.

Leon Scott’s phonautogram was made 17 years before Edison received a patent for the phonograph and 28 years before an Edison associate captured a snippet of a Handel oratorio on a wax cylinder, a recording that until now was widely regarded by experts as the oldest that could be played back. Leon Scott went to his grave convinced that Edison had been wrongly credited for the invention.

UPDATE:

Scientists announced in April 2013 that they had recovered a voice recording made by Dr. Alexander Graham Bell on a phonograph of his own invention on April 15, 1885 in Washington DC. The recording is extraordinary both as a technical achievement and because it captures Dr. Bell’s voice. You can hear it here.

* Despite the fact that the written recording is public domain because of its age, the sound, as a result of a restoration process, may fall under First Sounds licensing terms, which state: “These sounds are licensed under Creative Commons Attribution (by) license and may be redistributed or sampled; all we ask is that you provide First Sounds with a copy of your work.”

This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 1.0 Generic license.
You are free:

  • to share – to copy, distribute and transmit the work
  • to remix – to adapt the work
Under the following conditions:

  • attribution – You must attribute the work in the manner specified by the author or licensor (but not in any way that suggests that they endorse you or your use of the work).
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This entry was posted on April 9, 2010 by in Art of Communication, Tech Trends, Tracking the Past.
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