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Experts Uncover World’s Oldest Recording

March 28, 2008

A group of audio historians have discovered what may be the oldest recording of the human voice.

The 10-second clip is of a woman singing part of a French song called “Au Clair de la Lune” and it was recorded in 1860 – making it 17 years older than Thomas Edison’s “Mary had a little Lamb.”

The song was recorded using a phonautograph, a device created by Parisian inventor Edouard-Leon Scott de Martinville. The device used a needle to scratch sound waves onto paper blackened by the soot of an oil lamp.

Audio historian David Giovannoni, discovered the phonautograph in France’s patent office after learning of its existence in some Parisian archives – he traveled to the French capitol a week later.

Using high resolution optical scanning equipment, Giovannoni collected images of the phonautograms that he brought back to the United States. He employed the help of First Sounds, a group of audio historians, recording engineers and sound archivists dedicated to preserving the world’s earliest sound recordings.

“We found that Scott’s technique wasn’t very developed,” Giovannoni said. “There were squiggles on paper, but it was not recording sound.”

The U.S. experts made high-resolution digital scans of the paper. According to First Sounds, scientists at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California converted the scans into sound waves using technology developed to preserve and create early recordings.

“It was magical, so ethereal,” said Giovannoni. “It’s like a ghost singing to you. The fact is it’s recorded in smoke. The voice is coming out from behind this screen of aural smoke.”

Thomas Edison is generally considered to be the first person to have recorded sound and had his phonograph patented in 1878.

“It doesn’t take anything away from Edison, in my opinion,” said Giovannoni.

“But actually the truth is he was the first person to have recorded (sound) and played it back. There were several people working along the lines of Scott, including Alexander Graham Bell, in experimenting — trying to write the visual representation of sound before Edison invented the idea of playing it back,” Giovannoni said.

Scott never intended for anyone to listen to his phonoautograms.

“What Scott was trying to do was to write down some sort of image of the sound so that he could study it visually. That was his only intent,” Giovannoni said.

The annual conference of the Association for Recorded Sound Collections at Stanford University in California will present the results of Scott’s experimenting publicly on Friday.

Photo Caption: Thomas Edison and his early phonograph

On the Net:

Sound Files

Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory

Association for Recorded Sound Collections

Stanford University




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