Sunday, March 30, 2008

The Earliest Audio Recording (But Not The Grooviest)

When you learned in grade school about Thomas Edison, you probably had to memorize a list of significant inventions he came up with: the electric light bulb, direct current distribution of electricity, the motion picture camera (or "kinetograph"), and other marvels. But one that he is famous for is the phonograph, back in 1878.

You remember phonographs, right (a.k.a. the record player)? I mean, yeah, you have to be, like, over 35 or so these days to have actually heard one, and most of us over that age have records stored somewhere but no longer have an actual turntable to listen to them. Believe it or not, I actually have a record player. Yes, I like Disco. No snickering, please.

For those who are too young, records are those plastic discs that turn around and around and play your parents' and grandparents' oldies-but-goodie songs from the 70's and before (that's the 1970's, thank you, not 1870's), only Edison's were made of tin and were in the form of a cylinder. Later inventions made cylinders out of wax (played on a "graphophone"), and then discs made out of zinc (played on a "gramophone") and other materials, before plastic was invented.

Yesterday the world's first audio recording was revealed to the public, previously unknown until recently re-discovered in February at the archives of the French Academy of Sciences in Paris by an organization known as First Sounds, then converted to sound by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory:

The recording is of "Au Claire de la Lune", and was recorded on paper that had been coated with soot. The sounds were inscribed by a needle into the soot by an instrument called a "phonautograph" (see picture), by Parisian inventor Edouard-Leon Scott de Martinville, on April 9, 1860, 17 years before Edison and his phonograph.

Here you can hear the ghostly, warbly, 10-second recording: Most likely it was Scott's daughter singing.

HERE is a touching modern rendition of the song, sung by a father and his baby daughter.

The funny thing is that Scott, as I understand it, couldn't actually listen to the recordings he made. They were merely made and then submitted to the French patent office, then stored. It's a miracle they still exist.

Cool enough. I think I'll mark this discovery by listening to one of those grooved (groovy?) plastic discs on my own phonograph tonight: Donna Summer. I love to love you, baby!

Images adapted from HERE and HERE.


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