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They all laughed at Christopher Columbus
When he said the world was round,
They all laughed when Edison recorded sound...

— lyric, "They All Laughed," George and Ira Gershwin

Anyone involved in sound engineering these days must be familiar with computer programs such as Pro Tools or at least the freeware called Audacity. These programs display sound recordings in the form of waves which can then be manipulated by the engineer. Click on the print icon and you have a futuristic pattern generated by high technology... or do you? Someone beat you to it as early as 1860. They also beat Thomas Edison by 17 years at the game of "recording" sound.

Now, don't get your hopes up. It took today's sophisticated computer equipment to play back the recording, made in 1860 (the fact that it was able to be decoded at all is remarkable, nonetheless). You see, the device which made the recording, the Phonautogram, was intended to create a graphical image of sounds with the hopes that the sound waves could be deciphered back to words, rather than played as they were recorded. The Phonautogram was invented by one Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville, who published a paper about his idea for sound recording as early as January of 1857. To his first paper he attached two soot-covered glass plates, each with scribbles where a needle had removed some of the soot. The paper and the plates were placed with the French Academy of Sciences.

Scott received a patent for the concept of Fixation Graphique de la Voix and the Phonautogram in March of 1857. The patented Phonautogram contained a diaphragm attached to a needle which would etch sound waves on soot-covered paper wrapped around a barrel-shaped cylinder. A second needle recorded the sine wave created by a tuning fork which provided the calibration necessary to graph sound, compensating for fluctuations in the rotation of the cylinder.

Who's On First?

It took until 1877 for Thomas Edison to record, and play back, the tune "Mary Had A Little Lamb" on the first phonograph. As early as the 1890s Karl Ferdinand Braun invented the Cathode-Ray Tube Oscilloscope, a novelty for students of physics. It wasn't until the 1930s that the first calibrated oscilloscope was invented by a company later to be absorbed by the Raytheon Corporation. Although this early oscilloscope was used predominately by the military in World War II, it provided a "view" of electronic waves not unlike the view of sound waves made possible by the Phonautogram. It would be over twenty years until the "memory scope;" an oscilloscope which could freeze, save and print a waveform; was invented by the Tektronix Company. Of course, photography made it possible to capture the instant of an oscilloscope's screen image, but still, the Phonautogram captured waves over several seconds' time.

Inventor Scott intended his creation to be the birth of a way to store speech and later decipher it. However, he was quite upset when Edison announced his recording machine, capable of audio playback. Scott's 1878 autobiography rails at Edison for incorrectly naming his device a "phonograph," stating that it did not mean the reproduction of sound, but the "writing of speech." Scott died in 1879. It makes little sense that Scott was so angry at Edison. Scott's last submission to the Academy of Sciences in France restated the fact that his instrument was to assist in the study of vocal inflections, and in fact included instructions on how to "read" a recording made on the Phonautogram.

Turning Speech Into Writing

Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville was a printer and librarian, not a student of physics. Prior to his work with voice recording he wrote a book about stenography. Indeed, Scott had loftier dreams than did Edison. While Edison was concerned with sound reproduction, Scott intended his work to be the foundation of a speech-writing machine. IBM took over a hundred years to achieve that goal, with its ViaVoice® software in 1991 (and the first release of that software didn't work really well).

Today, of course, computer voice recognition is taken for granted. First used in telephone robots to route calls, "type-as-you-talk" software has become a reality. Most cellular phones are available with a "hands-free" voice-dial feature that allows one to speak the name of the person or business to be called (after it's been "taught" to recognize the name). The web search engine Google very recently launched a completely voice-driven telephone directory service.

Hearing The Voice Recorded Over A Hundred Years Ago

Scott's recording was turned into sound thanks to a collaborative of scientists and lay persons dedicated to making the earliest sound recordings broadly available. The collaborative, "First Sounds," was established in 2007 by the owners of Archeophone Records in Champaign, Illinois.

Careful copies of an 1860 Phonautograph recording on parchment paper were made, and then the waveforms "traced" with a sophisticated, computer-generated "stylus." After significant efforts were made to remove noise from the recording (again with the aid of today's most sophisticated computer hardware and software), First Sounds made the first recording available to the public: a ten-second excerpt from "Au Clair de la Lune," sung by a woman. They'd taken stabs at reproducing earlier, uncalibrated versions of phonautograph recordings and came up with nothing but noise.

On March 27, 2008, historian David Giovannoni, Patrick Feaster of Indiana University, Bloomington IN; and sound engineer Richard Martin played the filtered recording, the oldest viable sound recording existent, to attendees at a press conference held on the campus of Stanford University.

First Sounds describes the significance of their achievement in their website:

Until this discovery, the earliest recordings of the human voice known to be capable of reproduction were those made by Thomas Edison in 1877, and the earliest surviving recordings of certain date available to the public for listening were from 1888. "Au clair de la lune" proves that the human voice was recorded on April 9, 1860 well enough to allow the results to be played back and recognized, and it pushes our audible past back from 1888 by nearly a generation. "Au clair de la lune" is the oldest recognizable sound recording made from the atmosphere, the oldest surviving musical recording, and the oldest recording of identifiable words.






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