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< Saying 'yes' to the beauty of the world | Main | Kid-friendly classical space: Koncerthalle I Lego >

The sound of 1860...and 1859

Posted at 1:13 PM on March 31, 2008 by Fred Child (1 Comments)

"Mary Had a Little Lamb, whose fleece was white as snow..."

In 1877, Thomas Edison spoke those words into his new tinfoil audio contraption, and much to his amazement, he was able to play them back. Edison later said "I was never so taken aback in my life--I was always afraid of things that worked the first time."

For more than a century, that was the earliest known instance of recorded sound.

But now we can hear a recorded human voice that pre-dates Edison by 17 years. And perhaps the most remarkable part of the story is that this "recording" was never intended to be played back.

Edouard-Leon Scott de Martinville created what he called the "phonautograph," which created a visual display of the "shape" of a sound by etching lines in soot-coated paper.

Audio historians have known about these etchings for years. But they've always been considered visual representations of sound, with no way of recapturing the audio. But recently, David Giovannoni and Patrick Feaster took those sooty squiggles from a French patent office to their friends at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, California. That's where those simple squiggles in soot were turned into sound.

The entire process is documented in a March 27 report in the New York Times, and on a website run by a collective of audio historians and scientists called First Sounds.

The phonautograph etchings, or phonautograms, were accurate enough to be worked with...but they were done with a hand-cranked recording device, which had speed variations. So how to take out those wobbles? From the First Sounds website:

Scott recorded someone singing an excerpt from the French folksong "Au Clair de la Lune" on April 9, 1860, and deposited the results with the Académie des Sciences in 1861. The existence of a tuning-fork calibration trace allows us to compensate for the irregular recording speed of the hand-cranked cylinder. The sheet contains the beginning line of the second verse-"Au clair de la lune, Pierrot répondit"-and is the earliest audibly recognizable record of the human voice yet recovered.

If you want more details, check out the First Sounds website.

Now, to be accurate...that 1860 recording is the first of a human voice. Here's a recording from a year earlier, a recording of a tuning fork. (Restoration of this sound is still underway by the folks at First Sounds, but you can hear it in progress!)
What's utterly fascinating to me is that the phonautograph was a recorder, but NOT a playback device. Scott knew he was in some sense "recording" sound, but had no idea how to play that sound back.

This raises some philosophical issues about the nature of recordings and memory, and even questions about how we construct what we call "reality." More musings tomorrow...

Comments ( 1 )

Fred, it's so cool you played that over the air for everyone to hear! I read the story in print, but it only whetted my curiosity as to what the recording might have sounded like. Now I know. Thanks!

Posted by Steve L. | March 31, 2008 3:07 PM

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