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


Posted in History by patriciahysell on November 29, 2013
Thomas Alva Edison and his phonograph

Thomas Alva Edison and his phonograph

November 29, 1877: Thomas Alva Edison demonstrates the phonograph for the first time. Record players and gramophones (Gramophone in the US was a trade name) refer to the same invention. As the technology progressed, they were also called turntables, record changers, or hi-fis. The term phonograph is from the Greek for “sound writer” and early machines did, in fact, both record and play back the sounds. F. B. Fenby coined the term in 1863 and received a patent for something called the Electro-Magnetic Phonograph. No workable model was ever made of the device which was to record musical notes on paper. It was the forerunner of the player piano.

Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville patented a machine that transcribed words to paper in 1857. This device could not play the sounds back. Charles Cros of France produced a theoretical phonograph bur no actual machine in 1877. Edison saw the invention as more of a “talking machine” than a music machine. From May to July 1877, he tried to record and play back sounds in order to record telegraph messages. He announced his first workable machine on November 21 and gave a public demonstration on this date. The machine was patented on February 19, 1878, US Patent #200,521.

Edison’s early recordings were made on tinfoil cylinders. Various types of cylinders with varying playback capabilities were tried over the years. Emile Berliner introduced a flat disc as the medium of choice where a single groove carried a needle ever inward. The ease of stamping or pressing the discs was a point in their favor. Discs have a higher linear velocity at the outer rim whereas cylinders have a constant velocity, a point in their favor. Both types of recording media were used until the 1920s when discs became the preferred method.

Berliner’s original discs were five inches in diameter and used only one side. The discs grew first in size to seven and then ten inches. By 1908, two sided recordings were on the market. This was the deciding factor for the move away from cylinders. Different types of records played at different speeds. The turntable was set for 78, 45, or 33 revolutions per minutes. Records were pressed either as singles with one song per side or as albums with several songs on each side. Vinyl was first used in the 1940s. The sound quality was improved in the 1970s with high fidelity records and precision playback equipment. By the late 1970s, a new recording option was developed – the compact disc.

“I was experimenting on an automatic method of recording telegraph messages on a disk of paper laid on a revolving platen, exactly the same as the disk talking-machine of to-day.” – Thomas Alva Edison

“Mr. Thomas A. Edison recently came into this office, placed a little machine on our desk, turned a crank, and the machine enquired as to our health, asked how we liked the phonograph, informed us that it was well, and bid us a cordial good night. These remarks were not only perfectly audible to ourselves, but to a dozen or more persons gathered around.” – Alfred Beach

“PHONOGRAPH, n. An irritating toy that restores life to dead noises.” – Ambrose Bierce

“The greatest Electrical Pioneer of them all was Thomas Edison… Edison’s first major invention, in 1877, was the phonograph, which could soon be found in thousands of American homes, where it basically sat until 1923, when the record was invented.” – Dave Barry

This article first appeared at in 2009. Editor’s update: Thomas Alva Edison was born in 1847 in Milan, Ohio. He is the fourth most prolific inventor in history with 1,093 US patents in his name. (Kia Silverbrook of Australia has 4,629, Shunpei Yamazaki of Japan has 3,193, and Paul Lapstun also of Australia has 1,266.) Edison contributed greatly to several different areas of communication. He is responsible for a motion picture camera and the stock ticker. He was interested in electric power and invented a long lasting light bulb. He was a proponent of Direct Current in the war of currents with Nikola Tesla. He is sometimes called “The Wizard of Menlo Park” as he applied principles of mass production to the discovery of new idea. His idea of teamwork to gain patents was credited as being the first industrial research laboratory. His first bride was 16 years old and they married only months after meeting. They had three children and she died at age 29 of unknown causes. He married again when he was 39 and his new bride was 20. They had three more children. Edison died in 1931 at the age of 84, with his second wife surviving him.

Also on this day: Warren Commission formed – In 1963 the Warren Commission was formed to investigate President Kennedy’s assassination.
Zong – In 1781, the Zong Massacre took place.
Going South – In 1929, the first fly-over of the South Pole occurred.