A group of American audio historians in Paris has discovered a recording of the French folk song “Au Clair de la Lune” that was recorded on April 9, 1860–almost two decades before Thomas Edison invented the phonograph. The 10-second clip was originally recorded by a phonautograph, which was designed to record sounds visually through a series of squiggles on a piece of paper; it was converted into audio by scientists at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, Calif. One wonders how the guy who invented the phonautograph (pictured), Parisian inventor Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville, might feel about this particular discovery, since he apparently believed not only that the true way to evaluate a sound was by looking at it, he also thought that Edison was completely ripping him off:
Scott’s device had a barrel-shaped horn attached to a stylus, which etched sound waves onto sheets of paper blackened by smoke from an oil lamp. The recordings were not intended for listening; the idea of audio playback had not been conceived. Rather, Scott sought to create a paper record of human speech that could later be deciphered.
But the Lawrence Berkeley scientists used optical imaging and a “virtual stylus” on high-resolution scans of the phonautogram, deploying modern technology to extract sound from patterns inscribed on the soot-blackened paper almost a century and a half ago. The scientists belong to an informal collaborative called First Sounds that also includes audio historians and sound engineers….
[Audio historian David] Giovannoni said that his eureka moment came when he laid eyes on the April 1860 phonautogram, an immaculately preserved sheet of rag paper 9 inches by 25 inches.
“It was pristine,” Mr. Giovannoni said. “The sound waves were remarkably clear and clean.”
His scans were sent to the Lawrence Berkeley lab, where they were converted into sound by the scientists Carl Haber and Earl Cornell. They used a technology developed several years ago in collaboration with the Library of Congress, in which high-resolution “maps” of grooved records are played on a computer using a digital stylus. The 1860 phonautogram was separated into 16 tracks, which Mr. Giovannoni, Mr. Feaster and Mr. Martin meticulously stitched back together, making adjustments for variations in the speed of Scott’s hand-cranked recording.
Listeners are now left to ponder the oddity of hearing a recording made before the idea of audio playback was even imagined.
“There is a yawning epistemic gap between us and Léon Scott, because he thought that the way one gets to the truth of sound is by looking at it,” said Jonathan Sterne, a professor at McGill University in Montreal and the author of “The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction.”
Scott is in many ways an unlikely hero of recorded sound. Born in Paris in 1817, he was a man of letters, not a scientist, who worked in the printing trade and as a librarian. He published a book on the history of shorthand, and evidently viewed sound recording as an extension of stenography. In a self-published memoir in 1878, he railed against Edison for “appropriating” his methods and misconstruing the purpose of recording technology. The goal, Scott argued, was not sound reproduction, but “writing speech, which is what the word phonograph means.”
The whole piece is really fascinating, if only because inventors back in the day were apparently as cranky as bloggers are now. And a side note: Jody Rosen, the piece’s author, has had his name bandied about as a possible replacement for recently departed NYT pop critic Kelefa Sanneh, and if this is the sort of stuff he’ll file should he take the job, well, bring it on.