Thursday, March 27, 2008

The world's earliest sound recording?

Today's edition of the New York Times has an interesting article on what may be the world's oldest surviving sound recording, made in April 1860. Though Thomas Edison has long been regarded, in the words of the NYT article, as "the father of recorded sound," a recent discovery by researchers working in a Paris archive evidently proves that a French "typesetter and tinkerer" beat Edison by at least two decades.

Working in Paris in the 1850s, Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville developed a device called a "phonautogram" which produced a visual recording of sound waves on paper. Unlike Edison's phongraph, the phonautogram lacked the ability to play back the recordings that it made. Picking up where Scott left off, experts at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory have found a way to play the surviving phonautogram recordings. Though the team at the Berkeley Lab examined phonautogram recordings going back as far as 1853, an 1860 recording of a woman singing "Au clair de la lune" may represent the earliest successful attempt to capture the sound of the human voice.

To listen to Scott's April 1860 recording, click here. The sound quality is (as you may expect) fairly poor, but the recording remains impressive on account of its place in history. Listening to this recording and reading the story of the phonautogram led me to reflect upon the extent to which we all take technology for granted. It might be a good exercise to imagine how your life might be different if you did not have recorded music at your fingertips - what if the only way you could hear Bach or Beethoven (or, for that matter, "Au clair de la lune") was at a live performance? Imagine, too, how your perceptions might differ if you had never heard the voices of your elected leaders but had only read their words in print.

On another level, I'm fascinated by the fact that Scott apparently didn't even think of trying to find a way to play back the sounds he recorded. On the contrary, Scott's goal was to preserve a visual record of sound - he wanted to make what we hear into something that he could see. That notion leaves us with a lot to reflect upon, as we consider how the world might have been different without Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville. AMDG.


At 4/05/2008 3:03 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

Wow, that just gave me shivers.


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