Last week in Audio Preservation, we had a guest lecture from Patrick Feaster, sound historian and ethnomusicologist, regarding the earliest recordings. It was amazing, and mind-blowing, and I had to bite my lips to stop myself from blurting out "holy shit" at one point.
Most of us learned that in around 1878 Thomas Edison invented the phonograph and that was the advent of sound recording. It turns out that isn't so. The earliest extant recordings date from before the Civil War. 1857, to be exact.
In the 1854s, a French man named Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville invented a machine he called the phonautograph
. It had a plaster barrel/funnel with a membrane at the end. This membrane was attached to a stylus, which in turn was brought into contact with a hand-cranked drum. A lamp-black covered paper was wrapped around the drum. As someone spoke or sung into the funnel, one could crank the drum and the stylus would etch the soundwaves into the paper. Mostly this was intended as a way to study acoustics, but de Martinville also had intentions of developing a speech to text converter based on the phonautograph. Thus, unfortunately, a playback device or method was not developed for it at the time.
Luckily, thanks to technological advances in optical scanning developed at the Berkeley Laboratories, we now can play these back. And it is jaw dropping. The recordings are not clear - I could not make out any of the words at all. But the one's of de Martinville himself are easily recognizable as an individual human voice. Give them a listen.
He did this before the Civil War and we can still hear him today.
We also got to listen to some of the experimental recordings that Alexander Graham Bell's laboratory made (post-Edison) as they tested different kinds of discs and recording methods. During a test recording of "Mary Had a Little Lamb", something clearly went wrong - you can even see a damaged spot on the disc itself. Naturally, this caused alarm on the part of the testers. The official transcript of the disc indicates their reaction as "oh no". But if you listen carefully to the recording itself, that is not quite what is being said. And thus we got to hear the very first known recording of someone exclaiming "oh fuck", on March 11, 1885.
You can find out more at the First Sounds website