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1860 'Phonautograph' Is Earliest Known Recording


You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.

Up next, a new finding that may mean Thomas Edison has been ousted as the Father of recorded sound or at least that he has to share the honors.

A team of audio historians recently found recordings that predate Edison by about 20 years. They were made by a French inventor Edouard-Leon Scott on a machine called a phonautograph - and phono-autograph. Until last month, they were filed away, having never been heard, with Scott's papers there in a Paris patent office and the French Academy of Sciences.

We're joined now by one of the members of the research team, here to tell the story of finding those recordings and restoring them. And if you hang with us, we're going to hear the oldest recorded sound. We'll listen to it and get Scott's take on what Edison accomplished several years later. And what it was like to be the first person to listen to these recordings?

So if you like to give us a call, our number is 1-800-989-8255, 1-800-989-TALK. And you can always surf over to our Web site at and join avatars in "Second Life."

Patrick Feaster is a phonograph historian and instructor in the Department of Communication and Culture at Indiana University in Bloomington. He joins us today from the studios of WFIU in Bloomington. Welcome to the program, Dr. Feaster, especially during March Madness. I know how hard it is to pull yourself away there in Indiana.

Mr. PATRICK FEASTER (Audio Historian; Assistant Instructor, Department of Folklore and Ethnomusicology, Indiana University): Well, I didn't have to struggle my way over here, but it's a pleasure to be here.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Let's talk about it. Is this - is it the oldest known what, recording, song, sound, what is it?

Mr. FEASTER: Well, it's the first of a number of things. It's the earliest recognizable recording of the human voice, the earliest recording of a vocal musical performance, the oldest recognizable snippet of sound in any recognizable language. So, it's a lot of firsts.

FLATOW: How come we don't hear - we never heard of this guy here, at least in the States.

Mr. FESTER: Well, I think any detailed history of sound recording does mention Leon Scott, but certainly not as prominently as they mention Edison.

FLATOW: He was an 800-pound gorilla in a good sense. I mean, he was a big, you know, he was the driving force in audio technology.

Mr. FESTER: Leon Scott or Edison?

FLATOW: Edison, here in this country.

Mr. FEASTER: Oh, oh, sure.


Mr. FESTER: Edison was the first person to really succeed in recording a sound from the atmosphere and then playing it back. That was his goal from the beginning. He was hoping he could record sounds and ideally played them back over a telephone. That was his first idea. But then, all sorts of other applications turned up later on.

FLATOW: So he wanted to make a product out of this stuff.

Mr. FESTER: That's right. He was hoping this would be used by businessman, primarily. You could record incoming phone messages. You can record business dictation, all kinds of things like that. And then, it's kind of a side issue, well, capture all the great performances of all time for posterity.

FLATOW: And Scott had a different goal.

Mr. FESTER: Yeah. Thomas Edison was hoping to record sound so he could play it back. By contrast, Leon Scott wanted to get sounds down on paper where he could look at them and study them. It wasn't that he didn't know how to play them back. It's just he never really thought of that as something that was worth trying to do.

FLATOW: Why? What did you do - I'm trying to understand the sense of his sense of what he was trying to do by looking at waves on a sheet of paper, what the feelings of science community in France were that time. What was his gist here?

Mr. FESTER: Well, first of all, in terms of what we're talking about here visually, anybody who's ever used audio editing software should have a pretty good idea of what we're talking about here, that kind of wavy line that you see on your screen that somehow corresponds to a sound file that you're working with. Now, Leon Scott was professionally a typesetter. He set the type for books. He'd written a history of shorthand writing, not long before he got this idea. So he was really interested in ways of getting speech down on paper. He thought what he had invented was the ultimate speech-to-text machine.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Well, that's kind of interesting. So, he really was not, as you say, he was not - someone else would figure out how to play it back later on if they wanted to. That was not his job.

Mr. FESTER: No. He was hoping people would learn to read those squiggles and not just getting the words out of them. He saw that this invention, which is really kind of an artificial ear, that was his idea - was to build an artificial ear. That it would record not just the words, like stenography or shorthand, but you get all these special details, anything that made a musical performance great or a great speech great.

FLATOW: Now, tell us how you've found them and what the motivation of your team was, if you did not know they existed?

Mr. FESTER: Well, we knew that phonautograms were out there. I'd seen at least one photocopy and so we set out to find the original of that. Get a high-quality scan, and just in the process of haunting that one down, we found a second one and those were the first two that we actually tried to play back. And although we were astonished that it worked - people had been talking about doing this for a number of years. Although we got some sounds out of those, they weren't quite what we were hoping for.

FLATOW: Well, we actually have recordings of those, so you can - let's play them and people can see how difficult it was to hear what they sound like. Let's play the first one and you'll tell us what we were listening to.

(Soundbite of phonautograph recording)


(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: It sounds like it's broken.

Dr. FEASTER: Well, it doesn't sound like a great deal. What you just heard was a little - actually two little snippets from a sound recording that Leon Scott deposited with the French patent office in…

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. FEASTER: …1857. So, we know that this dates back at least to March of 1857.

FLATOW: Do we know what it is that he was trying to...

Dr. FEASTER: Well, he writes on this - yeah, he writes on a sheet that this is a phonautogram - that was his word for these recordings - a phonautogram of the human voice at a distance. Now, what that means is just that someone is standing in front some kind of a funnel and speaking, shouting, singing - we don't know doing what - into that funnel. It vibrates a little membrane, and that wiggles a stylus that scratches this wavy line on a sheet of paper.

FLATOW: All right, now we have another one that - you say, as you say, the second one from 1859. Let's listen to it.

(Soundbite of phonautograph recording)

FLATOW: That's a pretty pure tone.

Dr. FEASTER: Right. Now, what you're hearing there is a recording we believe was made actually by the vibrations of the tuning fork directly. That is we're not picking something up with the membrane, something that's gone through the air. This is just the actual tuning fork vibrating and drawing a wiggly line.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. FEASTER: So this is, we figure, the oldest, recovered sound that really sounds like something. I mean, you can tell it sounds like a tuning fork, right?

FLATOW: Now, how did you get off that paper? I mean, there was no phonograph needle here, was there?

Dr. FEASTER: Right. Well, this is really due to the work of Carl Haber and Earl Cornell at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. They've been working on developing optical message for playing back early sound recordings on delicate media such as, you know, wax phonograph cylinders and so on.

The idea being that since nothing is touching the groove except light, there's no wear and tear on the original as there would be if you try to use a traditional stylus or a needle. So adapting that technology to play back a wavy line on a piece of paper was really pretty straight forward. In fact, it may have been simpler because we're just dealing with two dimensions.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. FEASTER: There's no depth as you have with a record groove.

FLATOW: So it's like shining a laser beam and letting it trace the sound recording on the paper.

Dr. FEASTER: Right.

FLATOW: Yeah. All right, let's go now to the next clip from 1859. Keep going and tell us the progression that we're going to hear now.

Dr. FEASTER: Okay, the next clip, I believe, is from 1860, right?

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Let's play that and tell us what were listening to?

Dr. FEASTER: Okay.

(Soundbite of phonautograph recording)

FLATOW: Now, that's the one that would - made all the news last week.

Dr. FEASTER: That's right. That was the one that gave us goose bumps when we heard it. As I said, we've been a little disappointed with the first two phonautograms we heard. But we knew from some of Scott's writings that he had deposited some other recordings with the French Academy of Sciences.

So as soon as we found that out, David Giovannoni, who is also a member of FirstSounds, immediately made arrangements to get scans of anything that Leon Scott had deposited there. We got that on March 1st, just to give a sense for how quickly this has all happened. He opened those files up, looked at them, and among other things there were Scott's very first experiments there from 1853, 1854. Those looked totally unplayable.

But towards the end, there were all of these beautiful phonautograms. He'd looked at those, immediately recognized these were the clearest, best recordings we've seen yet. And then, I started looking at the inscriptions on them, and that's when we got even more excited, because we realized that what were dealing with here are recordings of songs, vocal scales, recitations. So, not just the tuning fork. I mean, this is going to be something really interesting to listen to.

FLATOW: Yeah. And you decided that by deciphering it, it was all "Clair de Lune," right?

Dr. FEASTER: They actually wrote out "Clair de Lune" at the bottom of the sheet and dated it in April 1860, so that's how we knew, not only what it was...

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. FEASTER: …but the actual date it was recorded.

FLATOW: Well, because it's so hard to hear it from the original sound recording, we're going to play a more modern recording version of it. And then we'll play the sound recording, and you'll be able to actually decipher it out. So let's listen to a modern version of that.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man: (Singing in foreign language)

(Soundbite of phonautograph recording)

FLATOW: That's quite obvious in that comparison, isn't it?

Dr. FEASTER: Well, I guess we've made a few advances in audio technology in the last 150 years as well.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: So are there other treasures out there waiting, do you think?

Dr. FEASTER: We believe there are. There are other Scott phonautograms that were present with this one that we have not yet played back. We're very much looking forward to doing that. I should mention that everything that we've recovered so far, you can hear online at, including a recording made by Thomas Edison in 1878 using the phonautograph. But we certainly hope - and these are really just the first of many primeval sounds we'll be able to recover.

FLATOW: Was this initially the first recording recognizable as a song? I mean, it was done, I imagine, with a hand-cranked machine so the speed must have been off, right?

Dr. FEASTER: Right. When it first came straight off the sheet, it sounded very irregular. We've got a hand-cranked machine, so when you try to play it back at a constant speed you get something that sounds like errr, yerr. Fortunately for us, Leon Scott thought of that, so alongside the vocal track, he had a tuning fork vibrating as well, much like the trace that you heard from 1859 a little bit ago. And the nice thing about a tuning fork is you know exactly how many times it vibrates in a second to minutes and so forth. So, we were able to go along and adjust that tuning fork trace to a constant speed, so it was a constant 500 Hertz...

FLATOW: Wow, that's genius.

Dr. FEASTER: …and, yeah, so the vocal track we had lined up as a stereo file with the tuning fork. So, when we adjusted the tuning fork, the vocal track just sprang into synch with it, and then we had what you hear today. Not quite what you had today. That still has had thumps, pops, clicks and so forth. Richard Martin at Archeophone Records did that piece of the work. But…

FLATOW: Let me just jump in and remind everybody that this is TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

Audio done lot of different ways these days. Patrick Feaster is talking about the history of this phonautograph. Now, as we say in New York, didn't he think he was robbed? I was robbed by Edison getting all that credit.

Dr. FEASTER: He thought that Edison was getting undue credit at his expense. Of course, he lived to see Edison's phonograph, not much longer after that. He died in 1879. But when Edison was getting all of this credit for recording sound and then playing it back, he — first of all, he felt that he was really responsible for the big breakthrough, but he also felt that Edison was off the mark. After all, he's just playing back sound. You still can't look at it on the page and make sense of it. So he thought Edison not only had ripped off his idea but was doing something nonsensical with it.

FLATOW: It's almost to me like the history of the telephone, where they -businesspeople - so what do you want to do that for? It's just a toy, you know? But that turned out to be the more useful. And now, we're seeing the phonograph being the more useful — used product.

Dr. FEASTER: Right. And Leon Scott wasn't alone here. There were other people who told Edison. You know, this is great, Tom. We could hear the sound back, but really what you need is some way of writing it down on a piece of paper so we can see it…

FLATOW: Yeah. And…

Dr. FEASTER: …and make sense of it.

FLATOW: And the fax machine had already been invented, or was being invented around a little later - the pantelegraph would be coming a few years later then.

Dr. FEASTER: Mm-hmm. But in terms of reproducing these sounds — Leon Scott, it just was not part of his…


Dr. FEASTER: …mental math. It would be a little bit like saying, okay, that's great, you got a seismograph, you can record earthquakes, but don't you really want to play them back?

FLATOW: And let's just talk about France in that period of history. That really was a tremendous research and development country with all kinds of things were going on there. Not only was there the controversy now about the phonograph, there's also with filmmaking with Edison.

Dr. FEASTER: Mm-hmm. Sure. That comes a little bit later. But at that time, there was an awful lot of international collaboration. People were borrowing ideas, building on each other's ideas right and left. And I really think and hope that there is plenty of credit to go around.


Dr. FEASTER: Certainly France was at the forefront.

FLATOW: Now, let's talk about then where Scott should rightfully be placed. Should we consider him to be the father of recorded sound?

Dr. FEASTER: I'd say that that title does belong to him - the father of recorded sound. We might still call Edison the father of reproduced sound. I think that would be fair.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And so where do you go from there - from here? Are you going to go look back into those archives again for some more stuff?

Dr. FEASTER: Well, we're sure hoping to. We think this is probably about as early as we can get, but there's a lot of other things in there that — in between 1860 and later years that we're still hoping to get.

FLATOW: Do you have any idea who that person singing might have been?

Dr. FEASTER: Well, there's been some speculation about that. David Giovannoni has suggested that he would like to think it might be Leon Scott's daughter. We know that he had a 15-year-old daughter at the time he made that recording. And it would make sense. He's looking for someone to sing a song into his phonautograph. She was probably sitting around the house. That could be, but really we don't know. It's truly guesswork for right now.

FLATOW: And what was your - just to get on the records here, somebody who makes a great discovery, you know, you have a-ha moment. How did you know, when did you know something really big had been found? And what were you thinking or feeling?

Dr. FEASTER: Well, for me, I can't speak for other people on this project. I'm sure they all had a-ha moments as well. But, for me, it was sitting there at my computer at about 5 o'clock in the morning having finally finished up those speed adjustments I was telling you about so we could finally actually hear the pitch of the song and so forth.

So, I'm a sound recording historian, so hearing a voice from 100 years ago is no real surprise for me. But sitting there, I was just kind of stunned to be thinking, now I'm suddenly at last listening to a performance of vocal music made in France before the American Civil War. That was just a stunning thing, feeling like a ghost is trying to sing to me through that static.

FLATOW: Well, I want to wish you - I want to congratulate you, first, and wish you great success. And hopefully when you discover more stuff, you'll come back on SCIENCE FRIDAY and play it for us.

Dr. FEASTER: Well, hope I can look forward to that.

FLATOW: And maybe we'll do a whole history of sound recording. It could be a very interesting program.

Dr. FEASTER: I'd be interested.

FLATOW: All right. We have your phone number.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. FEASTER: Okay.

FLATOW: Patrick Feaster, phonautograph historian and instructor in the Department of Communication and Culture at Indiana University in Bloomington. Thanks for taking time to be with us today.

Dr. FEASTER: Thank you.

FLATOW: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.