Little Bits of History

April 9

Posted in History by patriciahysell on April 9, 2017

1860: The oldest known recording of an audible human voice is made. Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville was a French printer and bookseller from Paris. He patented a phonautograph on March 25, 1857. The sound recording device could capture sound waves as propagated through the air rather than earlier devices which needed physical contact with the sound producing item, such as a tuning fork. The phonautograph transcribed sound waves as ripples or undulations and made the wavy line as a tracing on a smoke-blackened paper or glass. The instrument was made to be used only in a laboratory in the study of acoustics. It could be useful to visually study and measure the amplitude of the waves of speech or other sounds. Pitch could be determined if a simultaneous recording was made with the reference frequency.

There was no way to play back the recordings and no one thought to do so prior to the 1970s. The phonautograms held enough information about the sound that they, at least in theory, could be used to recreate the captured sounds. It wasn’t until 2008 when the earliest recordings were optically scanned and then a computer was used to process the scans into digital audio files. The scan from this day was turned into what appears to be Scott singing. The papers had been found stored in the French patent office with Scott’s other papers. High quality images were obtained and a playback was possible. There is much background noise, but the slowly sung words are distinguishable.

Charles Cros realized the phonautograph recordings could be turned back into sounds in 1877. He used a photoengraving technique to trace the graphs onto metal surfaces which created a playable groove. Then using a stylus and diaphragm similar to the phonautograph the reverse process allowed the sounds to be heard. Before he could write up a paper, Thomas Edison’s phonograph was already in use. There has been no record found of any attempts by Scott to listen to his prior phonautograms and it would take a new technology and 150 years before he was heard singing.

There had been a legend that Scott’s phonautograph was used to record Abraham Lincoln’s voice at the White House in 1863. Legend stated Edison had the phonautogram in with his papers. However, this seems to have been an urban legend and there has been no recording found anywhere. There is no evidence a recording was ever even made, since at the time, there wasn’t a playback option to make it worth traveling to a war torn country to make it. Edison did have a recording of Rutherford B Hayes made in 1878, the earliest recording of a US President.

The sweetest of all sounds is that of the voice of the woman we love. – Jean de la Bruyere

When the whole world is silent, even one voice becomes powerful. – Malala Yousafzai

The one thing that you have that nobody else has is you. Your voice, your mind, your story, your vision. So write and draw and build and play and dance and live as only you can. – Neil Gaiman

I long for the raised voice, the howl of rage or love. – Leslie Fiedler

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