Technology

How to Capture Sound on a Piece of Paper

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Researchers have figured out a way to play back the earliest audio recording, one that predates Thomas Edison's recordings. Alex Chadwick talks to Laura Sydell about how a French inventor captured sound on a piece of paper.

Sound Recording Predates Edison Phonograph

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Phonautograph

Edouard-Leon Scott de Martinville invented the phonautograph in 1857. National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution hide caption

toggle caption National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution

Thomas Edison wasn't the first person to record sound. A Frenchman named Edouard-Leon Scott de Martinville actually did it earlier.

He invented a device called the phonautograph, and, on April 9, 1860, recorded someone singing the words, "Au clair de la lune, Pierrot repondit." But he never had any intention of playing it back. He just wanted to study the pattern the sound waves made on a sheet of paper blackened by the smoke of an oil lamp.

A group of researchers found some of his old phonautograph papers and used a computer program to play the recording. They are presenting it publicly for the first time on Friday at Stanford University.

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