Thomas Edison’s 1877 phonograph established him as the father of recorded sound, but US researchers have now played back a grainy and spooky-sounding clip of a French inventor’s recording made 17 years earlier, a US audio sound archive group announced Thursday.
Parisian Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville recorded the voice of a woman singing an excerpt from the French folksong Au Clair de la Lune on April 9, 1860 on a device called a phonautograph, an invention that converted sound waves into etchings on a sheet of paper, but could not play them back. He deposited the results with the Académie des Sciences in 1861. 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.
Using technology to create a virtual stylus that could read Scott’s paper recordings, scientists at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, California were able to play back the ten-second recording of a woman singing the French folk song, effectively crediting Scott with the first-ever recording of a human voice.
The 148 year-old milestone was announced by First Sounds, a group of audio engineers and archivists who helped coordinate the work that went into demonstrating Scott’s achievement.
First Sounds historians Patrick Feaster and David Giovannoni were able to make high-quality scans in December and February of phonautograph recordings held in France’s patent office and the Académie des Sciences. Among them were Scott’s experimental phonautograms from as early as 1853, and more advanced ones made in 1860.
Scott used his device to scratch sound waves onto paper that was blackened with the smoke from an oil lamp. The work at the Lawrence Berkeley Lab turned the scans back into sound, for the first time ever.
“Scott never dreamed of playing back his recordings,” First Sounds said in a statement.
The team had to allow for variations of the speed at which the paper moved past the cylinder during the recording.
“The original equipment for recording essentially had a hand crank. So you can imagine a piece of paper put around a cylinder. Someone with a hand crank is cranking the cylinder to turn it as the sound is being recorded on the paper. If speed of cranking changes, the speed of turning the cylinder, then the way a middle C looks on the paper will change.”
The smokily sung version of Au Clair de la Lune was to be played at Stanford University during the annual conference of the Association for Recorded Sound Collections.