You probably learned in school that Thomas Edison was the first human voice recorded, reciting Mary Had a Little Lamb. As it turns out though, that’s not strictly true. Edison might have been the first person to play his voice back, but he wasn’t the first to deliberately record. That honor goes to a French inventor named Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville. He wanted to study sound and created the phonautograph — a device which visualized sound on soot-covered paper. They were not made to be played back, but the information is there. These recordings were made around 1860. There’s a 9-part video series about how the recordings were made — and more interestingly — how they were played back using modern technology. Part 1 appears below.
We say around 1860 because there were some early recordings starting around 1857 that haven’t been recovered. Eventually, the recordings would have a tuning fork sound which allows modern playback since the known signal can estimate the speed of the hand-cranked cylinder. The date of the first recovered recording was today, April 9th, 158 years ago.
The really interesting part is how they found some actual recordings with the original patent and then tracked down even more stored in archives. It is amazing that soot-covered paper has survived all these years. The website has a description of two different methods used to scan and playback the primitive recordings. You can also hear the recovered audio, of course.
We’ve heard rumblings — no pun intended — that audio might be accidentally recorded in pottery or other old artifacts. However, we haven’t seen any credible recovery of sound using these methods, including an attempt by MythBusters.
The phonautograph was a precursor to the phonograph, and we wonder if Edison was aware of it. It is interesting to think of the progression of audio recording media. Sooty paper, tinfoil, wax, vinyl, and even wire have held recordings. Of course, tape, plastic, and now whatever can hold digital data also do the job today.