Edouard Leon Scott Martinville, a French printer and bookseller who also invented the phonautograph, the world’s first tool for recording sound.
On April 9, 1860, Edouard-Leon Scott de Martinville created the earliest documented human voice recording, 20-second audio of someone performing the popular French folk song “Au Clair de la Lune.” You can hear the music by clicking here.
How Did Scott Record His Song?
Scott performed ‘Au Clair de la lune,’ a traditional French ballad, into the phonautograph, which recorded his voice’s sound waves and showed them on a phonautograph, a sheet of lines that visually recreated the patterns of the sounds picked up by the phonautograph.
The recording was recorded on April 9th, 1860, but because the phonautograph could only capture sound, not play it, the phonautogram of Scott singing was not heard until 2008.
The phonautogram was turned into an audio recording, and while scientists initially assumed the recording was of a woman or girl singing the song, they later reported that the playback speed was too fast, and when slowed significantly, the recording revealed itself to be that of a man’s voice, most likely Scott’s.
What is a Phonautograph?
The “phonautographe,” originally designed as a shorthand device, recorded sound by focusing sound waves onto a drum where an exotic boar’s bristle was connected, leading the bristle to move and engrave the sound onto glass plate, which was gradually replaced by lamp-blackened paper positioned on a drum or cylinder.
This device was not designed to play back recorded sound and could not do so. It did little more than trace a graphical depiction of the sound waves that struck the bristle. Researchers didn’t figure out how to recreate the sound waves that would have been utilized to trace the pattern in the soot until 2008.
The lyrics to the song were first published in 1843 in the collection Chants et chansons populaires de France. The four lyrics were included in the 1858 collection Chants et Chansons populaires de France.
‘Au Clair de la Lune’ is actually an 18th-century French folk tune. A woman sang a few lines of this song, which Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville taped on paper with a phonautograph in 1860.
Scott de Martinville had found out how to create recordings before Edison, but he couldn’t figure out how to play them back. Finally, in 2008, the recording was restored back to sound after more than a century.
Although the sound is a touch scratchy and unsettling, as if the century-old voice is fighting to be heard through time, it’s rather astounding.