Twenty years before Edison invented the recording process, Frenchman Leon Scott de Martinville invented a device for recording sound. He called it the Phonautograph and patented it on March 25, 1857. It did what it said on the tin and recorded sound, tracing the shape of sound waves as undulations or other deviations in a line traced on smoke-blackened paper or glass. What it didn’t do was play sound back which may be why history is silent about the Phonautograph…….until 2008.
In 2008 a group of US researchers from the First Sounds collective digitally converted the phonautograph recording of Au Clair de la Lune that de Martinville made on April 9, 1860 and it is the earliest recognisable record of the human voice and the earliest recognisable record of music. The momentous recording can be heard here:
You can find out a lot more about this recording and other very early recordings at the First Sounds website. Their site tells us that “First Sounds is an informal collaborative of audio historians, recording engineers, sound archivists, scientists, other individuals, and organizations who aim to make mankind’s earliest sound recordings available to all people for all time”.
3 late addedum:
- David Giovannoni, who is one of the First Sound guys, explains his project on this video clip.
- The Au Clair de la Lune recording won a grammy in 2008
- As David says in his video they have found a recording of cornet playing that was recorded 3 years earlier in 1857 – making it the oldest recording of music ever.
I’d love to get in touch with David and First Sounds but it looks like their email is currently broken. If you have a way of contacting them please let me know.