Gathering sounds out of the air. Charles Cros dawdles. Edison dawdles less.

Paris was clearly the centre of the world in the early days of sound recording. It was there that Leon Scott de Martinville invented his  Phonautograph to capture sound onto paper in 1857 and 20 years later Charles Cros took the process forward by working out how to record sound onto a cylinder by tracing oscillations using a screw. In April 1877 he wrote a paper describing his thesis and submitted it in a sealed envelope to the Academy of Science in Paris. Before he got a chance to build a prototype, a hard working inventor by the name of Thomas Edison living thousands of miles away in the USA beat him to it. Edison had been independently considering the same problem and in late 1877 he built a machine that recorded and played back sound which he called a Phonograph. Edison became world famous whilst Charles Cros is largely forgotten. Cros died 11 years later at the age of 46.

Portrait of Charles Cros

Bizarrely this was the second time that Cros had failed to gain recognition for a significant invention by being slow on the draw. In 1869 he had invented a way of taking colour photographs for the first time but took several months to submit his ideas to Société française de photographie. When he did get around to it, he discovered that a rival called Ducos de Hauron who had been developing his own method of taking colour photographs had submitted his own ideas that very day. And although De Hauron had discovered his method several months after Cros, the rival had built a device that could take colour snaps and  produced examples whereas Cros’s ideas remained only theory. And like Edison in sound, De Hauron is now widely remembered as the inventor of colour photography….

 Perhaps Cros was an ideas man who was less gifted at executing them or perhaps the reason that Cros never got round to building his imagined recording machine (which when he eventually did he would call the Paleophone) until some time later was that he was living a pretty full on rock and roll lifestyle.  Paris was the cultural capital of the world in the 1860’s and 1870’s and Cros was a significant player in artistic circles. He was a poet who wrote strange and proto-surrealistic poems (his best known is The Kippered Herring), ran around town with Verlaine and Manet and even shared an apartment with Rimbaud for a while. Cros was fond of a good drink and Absinthe was his tipple of preference; a choice that may have contributed to his early death.  He was a member of a group of artists who called themselves the Hydropathes and published a newspaper of that name. They were precursors to the Surrealists. The newspaper featured an illustration of Cros on one of their covers in which (looking spookily like Bob Dylan) he rides a fish (presumably a herring) carrying a bag of inventions over his shoulder as he hunts ideas with a butterfly. Seems to sum the man up! 

Cros also had some crazy ideas about interplanetary communication which you can read about in this interesting blog article .

The first recording in the history of recorded sound: 17 years before Edison. By a Frenchman!

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:

  1. David Giovannoni, who is one of the First Sound guys, explains his project on this video clip.
  2. The Au Clair de la Lune recording won a grammy in 2008
  3. 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.