Whether it was rushing to Woolworth’s to bag the latest CD, patiently recording songs off the radio onto compact cassette tape, or seeking through the slick sleeves of vinyl at a local record store, the analogue formats of recorded sound that pre date today’s digital era hold a special place in the hearts of those that have experienced them. While some would never turn back to the old methods in the wake of endless streaming services, others swear by their favourite analogue devices.
But what, I hear you ask, was the first method for storing recorded sound? This is a question that whisks us far away from today’s digital technology, taking us right back to the earliest recorded words, which marked the beginning of what would turn into nearly 200 years’ worth of captured sound.
The 1800s were a period of invention, and the first key milestone for recorded sound came in the 1850s via French inventor Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville. Scott questioned the idea that if photography, which had been invented several decades earlier, could capture fleeting images with lenses modelled on the eye, could a replica of the ear capture the spoken word?
Using medical text and diagrams of human auditory anatomy as inspiration, Scott invented the Phonautograph. It consisted of a horn covered with a thick elasticated membrane to which was attached a movable stylus. When sound was made into the horn, the membrane vibrated, causing the stylus to move. Scott covered pieces of paper, wood, and glass with soot, and fed them underneath the Phonautograph by turning a hand crank. The stylus etched marks into the soot, providing a 2D representation of the sound wave. Since the etched marks were insubstantial 2D lines, playback was not possible, however it was never Scott’s initial intention to be able to record and play back sound.
The Phonautograph’s initial purpose was purely as a device used to study the amplitude and acoustic of speech and other sounds. Over the next decade Scott experimented with the Phonautograph’s capabilities, improving the recording apparatus. Instead of recording onto a straight piece of paper, he recorded onto a cylinder, allowing for longer recordings.
Scott began to experiment with recording tuning forks and song, however, without the ability to play back the recordings at the time, the Phonautograph’s potential was not truly fulfilled. Its true success was perhaps in the inspiration it provided for subsequent inventors.
Nearly twenty years later, Thomas Edison became the first person to invent a device which both recorded and played back sound, a talking machine. In December 1877, the publication, Scientific America, wrote an article which stated:
‘Mr. Thomas A. Edison recently came into this office, placed a little machine on our desk, turned a crank, and the machine inquired as to our health, asked how we liked the phonograph, informed us that it was very 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’.
Like Scott’s Phonautograph, Edison’s Phonograph was centred around a rotating cylinder, turned by a handle. Edison’s cylinder was covered in a sheet of tin foil. A mouthpiece attached to a diaphragm and stylus transferred the vibrations made by speech, indenting them into tin foil with varying degrees of pressure dependent of the intensity of the sound. The foil allowed for a 3D indentation, a groove into which a stylus could be placed. When the device was wound again, the sound would be recreated, the undulations in the tinfoil causing the stylus to move in and out of the indented groove. This caused the diaphragm to vibrate, which in turn moved the air in the mouthpiece, replicating the sound. Edison stated that the first words in history to be recorded and played back were ‘Mary had a little lamb’.
Despite this revolutionary step, Edison was a man of many inventions, and swiftly moved his attention away from the Phonograph, filing a patent for the first electric light bulb two years later in 1879. The Phonograph provided great advancements to the progress of recoded sound, the baton of which was picked up by other key inventors including Alexander Graham Bell.
In 2008 scientists working upon a project called First Sounds, located Scott’s original recordings and used modern technology to play them for the first time in history. This huge break through into the history of early recorded sound allows us to hear the recordings that Scott himself was never able to play. Although the quality of the recordings is primitive, we are able to hear Scott himself speaking, and experimental recordings made by Scott to tuning forks, including the French folk song, ‘Au clair de la lune’. To find out more about the First Sounds project, and hear these remarkable first sound recordings, follow the link below:
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