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2010: The One hundred and Fiftieth Anniversary of Sound Recording

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As 2010 comes to a close it is perhaps timely to remind ourselves that it was a year that brought several notable anniversaries with it in the history of audio. Of course most wouldn’t be expected to get any attention even in the audio press but even the 90th anniversary of the first public radio broadcast received surprising interest in the mainstream media, with few news articles found on the subject. Although there were experimental broadcasts going back to the early 1900’s, the year 1920 is a milestone in radio broadcasting. Moreover, the decade that followed, when many homes first got a radio (usually a crystal set), could be considered the greatest revolutionary time in communications since the invention of the printing press! In a sense, this revolution continues to this day with radio being the medium for mobile communication.

Rather than discussing the early development of radio which has been well covered elsewhere, there was an older anniversary this year that was similarly important. It has been 150 years since audio recording became a practical, workable reality. There may be some controversy over this assertion since the oldest surviving sound recording, that of a tuning fork, was made in 1859. Still, 1860 was the year in which the recording of complex acoustical phenomena was made.

Phonautographe, University of California

Seventeen years before Thomas Edison made what was previously thought to have been the oldest sound ever recorded in 1877, French inventor Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville (1817 – 1879) recorded a human voice onto a paper cylinder with a mechanical device he had invented called the phonautograph, not to be confused with Edison’s later invention the “phonograph”.

Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville
Basically the phonautograph functioned in a way with which many that have read up on the basic workings of the microphone and the LP will be familiar. A thin membrane responded to the air pressure from sounds, which in turn vibrated a stylus that marked sheets of paper on a rotating cylinder that were blackened by oil-lamp smoke. Thus, sound waves were written on the cylinder. This method to record sound was patented by Scott in 1857. However, there was no ability to reproduce the recorded sound until the time of Edison, who should perhaps now be considered the inventor of “reproduced sound” rather than “sound recording”! The inventor thought his invention could be applied to a number of uses, such as a method for tuning instruments or a dictation device where people could learn to read the patterns of sound waves with their eyes. It sounds like an unlikely idea today as only some sort of robotic being could pull off a trick like that conceivably; but back then science was a richer place of possibility and imagination.

Scott was familiar with the pre-existing 19th Century idea in physics that sound vibrations could be recorded as lines with a stylus when attached to a vibrating object. As early as 1807, Thomas Young described recording the vibrations of a tuning fork on the surface of a blackened cylinder. Rather than being motivated by a fascination with physics, Scott was more interested in the practical application of recording sounds, akin to that achieved for images with photography. Photography must have been very prevalent in Scott’s mind as this new technology had been developed in France and yielded impressive results. He studied drawings of auditory anatomy and tried to mimic the workings of the ear mechanically. For example, he substituted an elastic membrane for the eardrum. This is perhaps the most notable aspect of his invention for it was now possible to record sound vibrations from the air, without direct physical contact with the source of the sound. This development may well have influenced early microphone invention in the later 19th Century.

Scott’s first attempts to record can be dated to late 1853 or early 1854, where he attempted to record the sounds of speech and guitar. However, the application of the phonautograph was inevitably limited because very short segments of sound could only be recorded on flat surfaces such as glass plates that were smoke blackened. Harking back to Thomas Young’s observations, Scott developed a paper cylinder format, circa 1857, where he wrapped paper sheets around a cylinder. Thus he could now record a continuous spiral of sound waves for a longer time. Some of his recordings survive from this period but their audibility is questionable even after sound restoration, which at best only provide hints of sound.

After a poor report that questioned the effectiveness of the phonautograph by a French semi-governmental organisation in 1858, Scott did little work on his invention until the following year when he worked with Rudolph Koenig, a builder of acoustic instrumentation. Koenig did significant work on improving the invention and even manufactured phonautographs for commercial use. By 1860, Scott was working with a physicist called Henri Victor Regnault who would further refine Scott’s device. 1860 seems to be the period when the phonautograph came to fruition and Scott made quite a number of successful recordings featuring songs and recitations, which still survive in good condition today.

As an invention, the phonautograph was seen as a footnote in history until several American sound historians discovered some recordings in 2008 in Paris and attempted to convert them into sound. An audio historian called David Giovannoni led the research effort. A method that could safely read the recorded data was devised. The paper sheets were scanned at very high resolutions and then the sound waves were read by computer to reproduce the sound. Most were in poor condition until they found one pristine phonoautogram recorded on the 9th April 1860 – a ten second segment of a French folk song, “Au Clair de la Lune”. Earlier phonautograms were discovered but they could no longer be reproduced, sounding only a squawk! Since then some have been recovered by other methods.

It is quite an experience to hear the sound of “Au Clair de la Lune” today. It is extremely muffled and fluctuates a lot but it can still be identified as a human voice. A lot of comments on websites featuring the recording describe the recording as having a ghostly disturbing quality. Indeed, it seems many extremely old recordings do have an eerie-voice-from-the grave quality to them, but this especially so. The recording would probably have been pretty much inaudible if it weren’t cleaned up to a huge extent. It was separated into 16 audio tracks, which were edited back together to account for speed variation.

A half speed version was released the following year indicating the source of the sound was a man’s voice, perhaps of Scott himself, rather than seemingly a girl’s voice as heard on the earlier version. Although there is no reference to compare the recording to, it appears that the half speed version is correct because other recordings also appear to have been recorded at a slower rate. Scott also recorded some tuning fork tones as a reference. Based on his writings, the pitch was originally thought to be 500 Hz but it is now thought Scott’s understanding of the pitch was in fact 250 Hz, as he had his own peculiar method for measuring frequency as “simple vibrations per second”.

Since Scott made a number of phonautograms before 1860 that still exist, the question of what was the first recording becomes difficult to assert. For one, the audibility of the early phonautograms from 1857 is uncertain. Thus the question should perhaps be revised to “what constitutes the earliest recorded sound that is recognisable”. The tuning fork qualifies as the first recognisable sound (shown here before and through the process of sound restoration). However, the recording of “Au Clair de la Lune” and subsequent successful recordings from the same year are of more complex acoustical waveforms which are harder to record adequately. Thus, it seems reasonable to assert that sound recording as we understand it today became a reality in 1860.

Scott’s invention would be extremely important even if it had not led to further development; but it would not be quite the milestone in sound recording that it is if it was the case that Thomas Edison had no knowledge of it. However, this is improbable because Edison himself is reputed to have used phonautographs for the measurement of sound prior to his development of the phonograph. Thus it can be said that the phonautograph is the direct ancestor of the phonograph, which Edison developed in 1877 as a machine for recording and playing back sound for recording telegraph and phone messages. This device is essentially the same machine that people now associate with wax cylinders. He recorded and played back a few lines of “Mary Had a Little Lamb”, which was regarded as the first recording of all time until the discovery of Scott’s phonoautograms. However, it is still the first successful attempt at reproducing sound, if Edison’s account is reliable. This original recording does not survive. What was regarded as the oldest surviving sound recording up until 2008 is from 1878.

A few months after Edison invented the phonograph and patented it in 1878, an inventor called Frank Lambert used the innovation to try to make a sort of talking clock machine! Edison used tin foil for the cylinders, and Lambert instead chose to use cylinders made of lead. This gave them a far greater longevity. For more details see: – a file of the recording is on there also.

Edison’s phonograph continued to develop, and became the first-ever commercial music format, essentially giving rise to the music industry itself. The invention took hold across the globe. Within ten years the commercial production and sale of sound recordings became a reality. Interestingly in the early days all recording was acoustic only, so musicians had to be right up against the phonograph baffles, and because there was no method for mass-producing recordings until the early 1900’s, each performance was captured with several phonographs to record a song several times. The same song was repeated many times to produce a reasonable number of cylinders for sale so each cylinder was in a sense unique and can be considered to be an original master studio recording!

Scott’s influence via Edison’s phonogram continued for a number of decades into the twentieth century. The wax cylinder was a commercial reality from the late 1880’s to the 1920’s when the 78rpm disc completely took over. Electronic sound recording became a reality in the mid 1920’s and many of the gremlins associated with sound reproduction were resolved by the 1930’s, although genuinely high fidelity recordings would only really appear in the late 1940’s. Within a hundred years of Scott’s first phonautogram recordings, high-fidelity audio reproduction had become a reality, as this mono track by Miles Davis from January 1949 demonstrates. Although superseded in areas like professional audio recording and for home entertainment, the dictaphone phonograph recorder would continue to be used in offices until the 1950’s. This is perhaps a fitting end to the medium as dictation was of the early uses for the phonautograph envisaged by Scott.

Some sources and further reading:

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