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Sound Recording Predates Edison Phonograph
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Sound Recording Predates Edison Phonograph
Sound Recording Predates Edison Phonograph
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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

It turns out, when Thomas Edison patented the phonograph in 1878, he was not the first person to record sound. He was scooped by a Frenchman nearly two decades earlier. No one has heard that recording until now.

NPR's Laura Sydell tells us about how the recordings were uncovered.

SYDELL: Clue number One was found in an obscure book by the typesetter and inventor Edouard-Leon Scott de Martinville. Indiana University instructor Patrick Feaster, an audio expert, just calls him Leon Scott. In his book, Scott argued that he, not Thomas Edison, should be getting credit for the invention of sound recording.

Mr. PATRICK FEASTER (Instructor, Department of Folklore and Ethnomusicology, Indiana University): This book that Scott had self-published just made a passing reference to some phonautograms he had deposited his samples with the institute, whatever that was.

SYDELL: The institute was the French Academy of Sciences. And deep in their archives in Paris was blackened paper with squiggly lines. Those were the recordings.

Mr. FEASTER: When we played them back at various speeds, all we hear is something like beep, beep, beep…

(Soundbite of beeping sound)

SYDELL: That hardly trumps Thomas Edison, but there was more. Researcher David Giovannoni, who made the trip to Paris, also found recordings created a few years later.

Mr. DAVID GIOVANNONI (Audio Historian): By 1860, Scott's equipment was technically good enough to make a recording with sufficient fidelity that we could play it back today.

SYDELL: It's an almost ghostly sound of a young woman singing "Au Clair de la Lune." Remember as you listen now, you are among the first to hear it.

(Soundbite of song, "Au Clair de la Lune")

SYDELL: Giovannoni says they think its Scott's daughter singing. Scott's phonautograph is the first known sound recorder. Feaster explains it was just a horn with a stylus at the end that picked up sound vibrations and traced them onto a piece of carefully prepared paper.

Mr. FEASTER: That was covered with a coating of lamp black, which is basically soot from a smoking lamp.

SYDELL: No one had ever heard the recordings, largely because Scott never intended to play them back. They were meant to be a kind of visual representation to be studied.

Mr. FEASTER: The sound waves that you could look at on the page and sit back and read and appreciate all of these great musical performances, oratorical performances, drama performances.

SYDELL: These early recordings were also fragile and couldn't be played back until recently. Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California developed a software that can digitally scan old, fragile, analog recordings and use the picture to recreate the audio.

One of the creators of that software, Carl Haber, says most people have never heard of Leon Scott because he didn't think playback was important.

Mr. CARL HABER (Scientist, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory): That's the key distinction - Edison reproduced it. And I think at that time, Edison's invention was much more transforming because nobody had ever heard a voice come out of a machine.

SYDELL: Still, now that we can hear what Edouard-Leon Scott de Martinville recorded, he may get a little more credit. Here it is one more time.

(Soundbite of song, "Au Clair de la Lune")

Laura Sydell, NPR News, San Francisco.

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