World’s first sound recording


Phonoautogram, from

Well, this item fails our criteria on two counts – it’s not about cinema, and it’s not silent. But it’s relevant, so here goes.

It was announced today that researchers have uncovered the world’s first sound recording, dating from 9 April 1860, an astonishing seventeen years before Thomas Edison received the patent for his Phonograph. The recording was created by something called a Phonoautograph, and the recording itself is a Phonoautogram. The Phonoautograph was designed to create a visual record of sounds. Invented by the Frenchman Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville, the device comprised a barrel-shaped horn connected to a stylus, which etched impressions of sound waves onto sheets of paper which has been blackened with soot. There was no means of playing back the recording. It was a visual record of sound designed for analysis.

The recording is a ten-second burst of the song Au Clair de la Lune, sung by an unidentified female. You can hear it (all ten seconds of it), and discover the background to its discovery and the ingenious use of optical imaging technology by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, California that reconstituted the sound in a New York Times article.

Or just click here for the MP3 file.

So it’s the world’s earliest known sound recording, but is it a true sound recording if it could not be played at the time? Surely the invention is only complete with the full realisation of the technology; that is, when Edison combined both sound recoding and playback, the earliest playable example of which (part of a Handel oratario) dates from 1878. And this is where the relevance bit comes in, because we face exactly the same dilemma with motion pictures. Eadweard Muybridge first photographed motion in sequence in 1878, and we can reconstitute such images to display motion. They look like movies, but at the time they never moved. Etienne-Jules Marey photographed humans and animals in sequence from 1882 onwards, soon to be followed by other chronophotographers, but his purpose was the same as Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville – analysis. Yet we can convert these film strips (Marey used celluloid) into fleeting semblances of motion. Louis Aimé Augustin Le Prince took perfectly serviceable motion pictures (on paper) in 1888, but much as he wanted to he was not able to project them.

So we award the laurels to Edison and to Lumière for having brought together the full package. Or so I’ve always argued. Now I don’t know. It seems to me that Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville (great name) achieved the essential business first – to capture sound. Being able to play it back was secondary – desirable, of course, but ultimately an inevitable follow-up that would just take a little bit longer to achieve (in his case, 148 years). So, on that basis, Edison and Lumière came last. They realised, but it was others who pioneered. Stand up Eadweard, the laurels are yours.

Debate, anyone?

Muybridge 1878

Muybridge’s photographs of a horse in motion, from Scientific American 19 October 1878

5 responses

  1. Hello!

    What a wonderful blog; well-written articles and interesting topics! Congratulations!

    Furthermore, I’m quite pleased to know your blog because I appreciate the silent movies!

    As you can read: I’m French. ;)

    I’m highly fascinated with the invention of Daguerreotype, made by Daguerre et Nicéphore Niepce! It seems that the French people has discovered a range of tools!

  2. Luke: You made a nice analysis. Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville (you’re right, that’s a great name — I wonder how “Scott” got in there) acheived what he set out to do — to make a visual record of sound for analysis. Marey did the same with images. Eadweard Muybridge (another great name, although he was christened Edward Muggeridge) did later manage to animate his images using his zoopraxiscope.

    Joe Thompson ;0)

  3. I should have got beyond these debates by now, but they still interest me. Marey was fastidiously against anyone animating his images (which is why he parted company with Georges Demeny, who went on to make films for Gaumont), while Muybridge yearned to see his images move, and seems always to have thought of them as animated. As Stephen Herbert has suggested, simply by choosing twelve cameras in sequence to photograph his humans and animals in motion indicates that he was thinking to animate them through a zoetrope. It depends how much you put intention above realisation.

  4. It has been a century and a half have passed since that first sound appeared in France in 1860. Abraham Lincoln and Robert E. Lee was alive when it happened and it was before the American Civil War.

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