Oldest Recording?

I'll let readers judge for themselves here. A recently-formed group claims it has found a recording of a human voice that was made before Thomas Edison invented the phonograph by some 17 years. The recording was reportedly made by a Frenchman but could not be replayed until scientists at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory  could scan the recording and make it work.

The recording was discovered in February at the archives of the French Academy of Sciences in Paris by First Sounds, an informal association of audio historians, recording engineers, sound archivists, scientists and others who aim to make mankind's earliest sound recordings available to all people for all time.

The group was established in 2007 by David Giovannoni, who is a member of the ARSC.

"It's a very haunting song," Giovannoni said of "Au Clair de la Lune," the melody that Parisian inventor Edouard-Leon Scott de Martinville recorded on a "phonautograph," a device that engraved sound waves onto a sheet of paper blackened by the smoke of an oil lamp.

The scientific breakthrough occurred on April 9, 1860, or 17 years before Thomas Edison invented his phonograph.

It is, however, necessary to give Edison his due. At the time, the French were unable to come up with a device that would allow reproduction of his musical recording.

As many as 148 years would pass before scientists at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory converted these scans into sound using technology developed to preserve and create access to a wide variety of early recordings on mechanical carriers, such as phonograph discs and cylinders.

For Patrick Feaster, a historian with First Sounds, that was a significant discovery for many reasons.

"We already knew that Leon Scott had invented sound recording but he just had never got to the stage of playing back his recordings," Feaster told AFP.

"But we have made a number of discoveries here. First of all we have now heard one of his recordings, something he never dreamed of happening, but it does push the history of recording sound quite a step back. Up until this point you could listen back to something as early as 1888. That was about as far as you could go.

"Secondly," the historian continued, "People tended to present Scott's phonautograph as a dry scientific instrument but Leon Scott was really hoping to record interesting stuff: he wanted to preserve great music, great speeches."

You can listen to the decoded recording over at this website. For me, this is pretty thin. If the recording is actually the oldest recording, the inventor never figured out how to actually do anything with what he captured. Even if this is an actual recording, as opposed to creative decoding (and I am not saying the people involved did anything untoward here) one has to ask, who cares? The recording had no way of being recovered until massive technology was deployed to do so. 

At most, a historical oddity.  

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4 Responses to Oldest Recording?

  1. Rich Horton says:

    Sounds like we have a new episode of Mythbusters in the making.
    Which reminds me…they actually did a show about "recording" sound on a piece of pottery.  As I remember they couldn’t make that work really.  I get the feeling this would be similar.

  2. Bleepless says:

    Could the high-tech recovery have been necessary just because of age?  It did sit around, unused, for quite a while.  I really have no idea about this, or opinion.
    Another point:  if somebody invents something but fails or refuses to do anything with it, what has he done?  To my way of thinking, he has done much less than those who actually spread it around, whether or not they got their idea from his work.

  3. wheels says:

    Actually, it sounds like he invented the first write-only memory device – it only took 148 years to develop the reader.

  4. martian says:

    A device that records music to a sheet of paper? Can you say "pencil"? I guarantee you that it is possible today to have a scanning device read sheet music and turn it into audio music. Is this any less valid than the "recording" discussed in this article? It seems like quite a tretch to me to call this a recording. It sounds like the French trying to boost their self-esteem again.

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