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Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville & The Phonautograph

As a printer by trade, he was able to read accounts of the latest scientific discoveries and became an inventor. Scott de Martinville was interested in recording the sound of human speech in a way similar to that achieved by the then new technology of photography for light and image. He hoped for a form of stenography that could record the whole of a conversation without any omissions. His earliest interest was in an improved form of stenography and he was the author of several papers on shorthand and a history of the subject (1849).

From 1853 he became fascinated in a mechanical means of transcribing vocal sounds. While proofreading some engravings for a physics textbook he came across drawings of auditory anatomy. He sought to mimic the working in a mechanical device, substituting an elastic membrane for the tympanum, a series of levers for the ossicle, which moved a stylus he proposed would press on a paper, wood, or glass surface covered in lampblack. On 26 January 1857, he delivered his design in a sealed envelope to the French Academy. On 25 March 1857, he received French patent #17,897/31,470 for the phonautograph.

The phonautograph used a horn to collect sound, attached to a diaphragm which vibrated a stiff bristle which inscribed an image on a lamp black coated, hand-cranked cylinder. Scott built several devices with the help of acoustic instrument maker Rudolph Koenig. Unlike Edison‘s later invention of 1877, the phonograph, the phonautograph only created visual images of the sound and did not have the ability to play back its recordings. Scott de Martinville’s device was used only for scientific investigations of sound waves.

Scott de Martinville managed to sell several phonautographs to scientific laboratories for use in the investigation of sound. It proved useful in the study of vowel sounds and was used by Franciscus DondersHeinrich Schneebeli and Rene Marage. It also initiated further research into tools able to image sound such as Koenig’s manometric flame. He was not, however, able to profit from his invention and spent the remainder of his life as a librarian and bookseller at 9 Rue Vivienne in Paris.

Scott de Martinville also became interested in the relationship between linguistics, people’s names and their character and published a paper on the subject (1857).

Direct tracings of the vibrations of sound-producing objects such as tuning forks had been made by English physician Thomas Young in 1807, but the first known device for recording airborne speech, music and other sounds is the phonautograph, patented in 1857 by French typesetter and inventor Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville. In this device, sound waves travelling through the air vibrated a parchment diaphragm which was linked to a bristle, and the bristle traced a line through a thin coating of soot on a sheet of paper wrapped around a rotating cylinder. The sound vibrations were recorded as undulations or other irregularities in the traced line. Scott’s phonautograph was intended purely for the visual study and analysis of the tracings. Reproduction of the recorded sound was not possible with the original phonautograph.

In 2008, phonautograph recordings made by Scott were played back as sound by American audio historians, who used optical scanning and computer processing to convert the traced waveforms into digital audio files. These recordings, made circa 1860, include fragments of two French songs and a recitation in Italian. This was made possible by the wonderful work of FirstSounds.Org detailed below.

Au Clair de la Lune – By the Light of the Moon (April 9, 1860) [#36]

Scott recorded the French folksong “Au Clair de la Lune” on April 9, 1860, and deposited the results with the Académie des Sciences in 1861. It remains the earliest clearly recognizable record of the human voice yet recovered.  The words have been a matter of controversy, but the latest playback—unveiled in May 2010—establishes them as “Au clair de la lune, mon ami Pierrot, prête moi—,” rather than “Au clair de la lune, Pierrot répondit,” as originally announced.  The latest work also reveals that Scott had allowed the cylinder to slow down—possibly to a complete stop—between the words “Pierrot” and “prête,” perhaps indicating a pause to check how much unrecorded space was left on the sheet.

Listen here to the Recording : 

FirstSounds.ORG

These wonderful people since 2008 have been bringing to life the worlds oldest recordings – here is some basic info about them and what they do

David Giovannoni tracks some of his activities on his website.

Patrick Feaster explores historical media at his website and blog.

Richard Martin & Meagan Hennessey continue to produce new releases for Archeophone Records and blog about acoustic era sound.

Many good people have collaborated with us over the years. Sincere thanks to all.

Further Reading & Research

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