At The Dawn Of Recorded Sound, No One Cared : All Tech Considered In the late 19th century, French inventor Edouard-Leon Scott de Martinville patented the earliest known sound recording device. But his accomplishments were only recognized recently.
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At The Dawn Of Recorded Sound, No One Cared

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At The Dawn Of Recorded Sound, No One Cared

At The Dawn Of Recorded Sound, No One Cared

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

This year, another inventor, Edouard-Leon Scott de Martinville, would have turned 200 years old. If you're wondering who, he's the Frenchman who beat Thomas Edison in the first recording of sound. Edison's New Jersey lab recently brought together both inventors' great-grandsons.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Edouard-Leon was my great-grandfather.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: It is a great pleasure to meet and to welcome a fellow scholar and a fellow great-grandson of an inventor (unintelligible).

(APPLAUSE)

CORNISH: NPR's Laura Sydell was in the audience. After that, she set out to learn why both men even wanted to record sound in the first place.

LAURA SYDELL, BYLINE: In 1857, Scott de Martinville patented the earliest known sound recording device, the phonautograph. He recorded himself singing the song "Clair De Lune."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

EDOUARD-LEON SCOTT DE MARTINVILLE: (Singing "Clair De Lune").

SYDELL: But Scott never heard that recording. We can hear it now because almost a decade ago some audio archaeologists used a computer to play back his recordings. Scott recorded sound using a needle that etched its vibrations onto a plate of glass. As strange as it seems, all the French inventor cared about was seeing what sound looked like.

EMILY THOMPSON: The idea of playback just didn't occur to him.

SYDELL: This is Princeton professor Emily Thompson. She teaches the history of sound technology.

THOMPSON: He wanted to understand how sounds work. He's part of a tradition of finding ways to render sound visible so that you could look at it and learn about it.

SYDELL: Scott proved that vibrations are truly how sounds come to our ears. But the scientific community had trouble accepting his breakthrough.

THOMPSON: Sound separated from a sounding body was just sort of a conceptual leap that I'm not sure people had the cultural context to invent this stuff.

SYDELL: But they did know about photographs, says David Giovannoni. He's part of the team that recovered the audio from Scott's recordings.

DAVID GIOVANNONI: Scott and others were thinking about we're going to have to find a way to daguerreotype the voice. He's basically saying, I want to photograph the voice.

SYDELL: There's no definitive evidence that shows that Edison knew about Scott's breakthrough when he stumbled onto sound recording. Initially, he was just trying to improve Alexander Graham Bell's telephones. Years later, an Edison assistant wrote this, as read here by Giovannoni.

GIOVANNONI: (Reading) We were sitting around. We'd been working on the telephone, yelling into diaphragms. And Edison turned to me and he said, if we put a needle or a pin on this diaphragm it'll vibrate. And if we pull a strip of wax paper underneath it, it should leave marks. And then if we pull that piece of paper back we should hear the talking.

SYDELL: At first, no one knew what to do with this invention. It took 20 years to figure out that music was the killer app.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SCOTT: (Singing "Clair De Lune").

SYDELL: Edouard-Leon Scott de Martinville had long given up on his sound etchings when he read that Thomas Edison's new invention, the phonograph, was demonstrated at the French science academy. He wrote the academy, saying that his work had been used by that New York electrician. Scott was ignored. He died shortly after and did not live to see recorded sound become popular. But his story may have a lesson for inventors - even if you've got a scientific breakthrough, it helps to know you've got a market that wants it. Laura Sydell, NPR News.

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