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Monday, 31 March 2008 20:54

Scott de Martinville records sound earlier than Edison

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Previously regarded as the first person to make an audio recording, American inventor Thomas Edison lost this distinction when a recording was found that had been created in 1860 by Parisian inventor Edouard-Léon Scott de Martinville.


French inventor Edouard-Léon Scott de Martinville (1817-1879) is now regarded as having invented the first sound recording device. He patented the invention, what he called the phonautograph, on March 25, 1857. Its patent number is #17,897/31,470.

However, Scott de Martinville never played back his recording. Thus, Edison still holds that distinction.

In fact, David Giovannoni, one of the people that discovered the Scott de Martinville recording stated that the phonautograph recordings (what are called “phonautograms”) were never intended to be played. Giovannoni explains, “What Scott was trying to do was to write down some sort of image of the sound so that he could study it visually. That was his only intent.” [ABC Science]

Giovannoni continued to state, "But actually the truth is he [Scott de Martinville] was the first person to have recorded [sound] and played it back. There were several people working along the lines of Scott, including Alexander Graham Bell, in experimenting—trying to write the visual representation of sound before Edison invented the idea of playing it back.”

American inventor and businessman Thomas Alva Edison (1847-1931) is an internationally known inventor of over one thousand different inventions, such as the incandescent light bulb, the industrial research library, carbon microphone (used in telephones), and the electric distribution system (delivery of electricity, which was the basis for his founding of the Edison Electric Illuminating Company).

However, now that this recording has surfaced, it is now known that Scott de Martinville made an audio recording seventeen years earlier than Edison.

The ten-second recording was made on April 9, 1860 and recorded of a person singing “Au clair de la lune, Pierrot répondit” (or, “By the Light of the Moon, Pierrot Replied”)—a piece from a French folksong.

The sound will be listened to for the first time on Thursday, March 27, 2008, inside the Braun Music Center at the annual conference of the nonprofit Association for Recorded Sound Collections at Stanford University (California). Other samples of sounds from this era will also be played at the conference.

How was the Scott de Martinville recording discovered? Please continue.




The search for the phonautograph was begun by Patrick Feaster and David Giovannoni late in 2007.

In December of that year, they found two specimens at an archive within the the Institut National de la Propriété Industrielle (the French patent office), in Paris, France.

The two examples of the recording were originally given to the French patent office when Scott de Martinville applied for patents in 1857 and 1859. Around March 2008, the two men traced these two specimens to several phonautograms at the Académie des Sciences of the Institut de France.

Then, Feaster, Giovannoni, and fellow audio historians, recording engineers, and other such professionals—a group called First Sounds—sought the help of scientists at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (California).

These scientists converted the blackened scratches on a sheet paper to a condition that allowed the recording to be heard. Then, Earl Cornell and Carl Haber, two scientists at Lawrence Berkeley, made high-resolution digital scans of the paper in order to preserve the sound.

Images of Scott de Martinville’s work are found at: Publicity Images .

The reproduction of sound from the phonautograms can be heard at: Sounds of First Sounds .

The press release from First Sounds of the sound discovery is found at: First Sounds Press Release .

According to the website of First Sounds, the group “is an informal collaborative of audio historians, recording engineers, sound archivists, scientists, other individuals, and organizations who aim to make mankind's earliest sound recordings available to all people for all time.”

It was founded in 2007 by David Giovannoni of Derwood, Maryland; Patrick Feaster of Indiana University, Bloomington Indiana; and Richard Martin and Meagan Hennessey, owners of Archeophone Records of Champaign, Illinois.

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