How to Capture Sound on a Piece of Paper Researchers have figured out a way to play back the earliest audio recording — one that predates Thomas Edison's. A French inventor had an extremely innovative approach to capturing sound.
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How to Capture Sound on a Piece of Paper

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How to Capture Sound on a Piece of Paper

How to Capture Sound on a Piece of Paper

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This is Day to Day. I'm Madeleine Brand.


I'm Alex Chadwick. Download this. Researchers today claim that the first audio recordings were not made by Thomas Edison, the inventor of the phonograph back in 1877, but rather by a Frenchman working in Paris 20 years earlier, and here is proof, or evidence, anyway.

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

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) Au clair de la lune, mon ami Pierrot...

CHADWICK: NPR's Laura Sydell is following this story. Laura, I think I can hear a voice somewhere in that recording. What is it?

LAURA SYDELL: Well, it's Clair de la Lune being by sung by somebody we don't know quite who it is. The researchers think it is the daughter of Edouard-Leon Scott de Martinville, who they just call Leon Scott.

CHADWICK: And he is the person, the Frenchman working in Paris, he was a kind of a tinkerer - inventor, and he came up with something called the phonoautograph. I have to say, I've never even heard of this thing before.

SYDELL: That is right, and it was not meant for playback. It was a device that would enable you to see the vibrations of sound. And essentially, what he would do is he would take a piece of paper and he'd blacken it with soot from a lamp, and he would wrap it around a cylinder, use a stylus with a horn attached to it, and whoever it was was singing into that horn, and layout the vibrations on the paper.

CHADWICK: So, it would be kind of like the graphic representation of sound that you see in a lot audio editing programs these days.

SYDELL: That's right. We're actually back to seeing it, and in fact, he never would have imagined though that we would want to listen back to it. This was essentially a way he saw it, a kind of shorthand that you would be able to read, say, the voice of a great actor and see what it looked like.

CHADWICK: All right, well, how is it that we are hearing? This is the work of three American researchers who got interested in this guy. How did they find these old recordings of his, and then how did they fix it so that we actually can hear them?

SYDELL: Well, there is a gentleman named Patrick Feaster, who teaches at Indiana University, and he was reading a book by Scott and in it Scott says that he filed away something in the patent office in France. And this would have been in the late 1850s, well before Edison, a good two decades before Edison, and so they decided, let's go look and see what was there. And they found some stuff - it wasn't very good, but in the patent application he said he also filed something at the Academy, which was the Academy of Sciences. They went there and this is where they found actually some pretty good samples.

There's a project at Berkeley Lawrence Laboratories here at UC Berkeley that has essentially figured out how to take these old transcribed recordings and digitize them so they read the little grooves. And this is, I mean, you realize he recorded this a good two decades before Edison. Edison was - independently invented what he invented, but at the time when Edison - when it became public, Leon Scott actually was quite upset that Edison was getting credit, because he was saying wait, I did it first!

CHADWICK: Well, does this invention change anything about the beginnings of audio, and what we know?

SYDELL: Well, it does historically. I mean, it just tells us where we were and what people were thinking about at the time, and that they were thinking about visualization, and I think too when you hear that voice it's almost ghostly. It's from 1860, and it's kind of extraordinary to be able to hear that.

CHADWICK: NPR's Laura Sydell on the discovery of the earliest-known recordings in a French archive. They date back to the 1850s and 60s. Laura, thank you.

SYDELL: You're welcome.

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