The New York Times reports on recent research in the history of audio recording demonstrating that the basic principle used by Thomas Edison in his phonograph was previously known and understood. Edison’s genius consisted of taking these kinds of ideas and making them practically useful, thus turning them into commercial products.
For more than a century, since he captured the spoken words â€œMary had a little lambâ€ on a sheet of tinfoil, Thomas Edison has been considered the father of recorded sound. But researchers say they have unearthed a recording of the human voice, made by a little-known Frenchman, that predates Edisonâ€™s invention of the phonograph by nearly two decades.
The 19th-century phonautograph, which captured sounds visually but did not play them back, has yielded a discovery with help from modern technology.
The 10-second recording of a singer crooning the folk song â€œAu Clair de la Luneâ€ was discovered earlier this month in an archive in Paris by a group of American audio historians. It was made, the researchers say, on April 9, 1860, on a phonautograph, a machine designed to record sounds visually, not to play them back. But the phonautograph recording, or phonautogram, was made playable â€” converted from squiggles on paper to sound â€” by scientists at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, Calif.
â€œThis is a historic find, the earliest known recording of sound,â€ said Samuel Brylawski, the former head of the recorded-sound division of the Library of Congress, who is not affiliated with the research group but who was familiar with its findings. The audio excavation could give a new primacy to the phonautograph, once considered a curio, and its inventor, Ã‰douard-LÃ©on Scott de Martinville, a Parisian typesetter and tinkerer who went to his grave convinced that credit for his breakthroughs had been improperly bestowed on Edison.
Scottâ€™s device had a barrel-shaped horn attached to a stylus, which etched sound waves onto sheets of paper blackened by smoke from an oil lamp. The recordings were not intended for listening; the idea of audio playback had not been conceived. Rather, Scott sought to create a paper record of human speech that could later be deciphered.
But the Lawrence Berkeley scientists used optical imaging and a â€œvirtual stylusâ€ on high-resolution scans of the phonautogram, deploying modern technology to extract sound from patterns inscribed on the soot-blackened paper almost a century and a half ago. The scientists belong to an informal collaborative called First Sounds that also includes audio historians and sound engineers.
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