- By Dalia Ventura
- BBC World News
For 120 years, an uncontroversial truth has prevailed: Thomas Alva Edison was the first person to record the human voice.
Inventor, among others, of the electric bulb and the cinematographic camera, he had managed in 1888 to make these recordings with another of his creations, the wax cylinder phonograph, and witnesses of the feat were numerous, including including those attending a concert he had recorded at the Handel Festival at Crystal Palace, London.
However, more than a century later, two members of the First Sounds Initiative – a collective that “strives to make humanity’s earliest sound recordings available to all people of all time” – began to suspect the existence of another reality.
Their surprising discoveries helped rewrite history … twice in 2008.
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When the American audio historian Patrick Feaster began to document a sound pioneer before Edison, a Frenchman named Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville, he was hardly enthusiastic; his invention seemed to be only a technical precursor of the phonograph, used only for scientific experiments.
But his opinion changed over the course of his research, especially after seeing bad photocopies of the patent for a device called a phonoautograph, which the French had filed on March 25, 1857.
Shortly after, during a visit to Paris, his colleague David Giovannoni personally consults Scott de Martinville’s papers at the French Patent Office and discovers two phononautograms … nothing less than sound recordings dating from 1860, namely 28 years before Edison’s. These are soot-covered sheets of paper that have been marked by the vibration of a boar’s silk caused by the sounds.
Thanks to the fact that they had been immersed in a fixer, these traces of an event that occurred a dozen decades ago were perfectly preserved.
The challenge was to translate these marks into sound waves. Giovannoni sent the documents to Feaster in the United States, who, with his computer, got down to work as soon as he received them.
“I ended up staying up all night,” Feaster told the BBC’s “Orchestra of Lost Sounds” show.
He had to manually adjust the sound waves using as a reference the vibrations inscribed by a tuning fork that Scott had recorded in the same documents for precisely this purpose.
“When the sun rose, I finally got to hear the recording. It was (the popular French song) Au Clair de la Lune. Sitting there, I realized I was the first person to hear it. someone sing it before the start of the American Civil War: I got goosebumps.
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And that’s not all: Feaster was also the first person to hear this recording. Quite short.
Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville had never listened to him; in fact, he had never even tried.
Scott was editor and composer of manuscripts in a scientific publishing house in Paris. As a good man of letters, his dream was different.
What if a writer, he wondered, could “dictate a fleeting dream in the middle of the night and, upon awakening, discover not only that it was written, but rejoice in his freedom from the quill, that instrument with which he struggles and that cools the expression? “
In fact, he wanted to create a device that would perform a function similar to modern automatic speech recognition programs, a tool capable of processing the voice signal emitted by humans and converting it into easily readable symbols.
“The reckless idea of photographing the word” had come to him one day, in the middle of the 19th century, after reading a text on human physiology: if photography could capture fleeting images thanks to lenses imitating the eye , couldn’t a replica of the ear pick up the words spoken?
His inspiration gave birth to the phonoautograph, an auto-writer of sounds, and he still dreamed that calligraphy written in soot, which he considered natural shorthand, would one day be read as easily as the symbols we had invented, like letters.
For now, he had realized his vision of making sound, always invisible and transitory, something visible and permanent.
After his phonoautograph caught the attention of the SEIN (Société d ‘Encouragement pour l’Industrie Nationale), an association of experts that assesses new technologies and their potential contributions to French industry, Scott received support for improve his invention.
He later teamed up with Rudolph Koenig, a manufacturer of precision scientific instruments, to market it, listing it in the catalog as a device capable of filling a gap in acoustics that he said , “is a century behind the other experimental sciences, lacking instruments of observation, measurement and analysis, such as astronomy before the invention of the telescope”.
The phonoautograph was “a means of dissecting sound phenomena, a microscope which not only shows sounds but keeps track of them”.
His intention has always been to show the sounds, rather than reproduce them, and it was with this in mind that Scott made several dozen recordings of fragments of songs, poems and plays in different languages that rested silent. , safe, but almost forgotten in various venerable French institutions.
Until 2008, when, thanks to today’s technology, one of these recordings came to life as “a ghost passing through a veiled curtain of time,” as Giovannoni told the BBC.
A public inauguration
The recording of Au Clair De La Lune in the voice of a girl Giovannoni and Feaster thought was Scott’s daughter – “Wouldn’t that be adorable?” – was revealed to the public and quickly went viral.
Not everyone thought it was so cute.
BBC Radio 4 reporter Charlotte Green had an uncontrollable fit of giggles when she heard it on her live TV news, a clip that also went viral.
Green later said it looked like “a bee trapped in a bottle.”
Some were moved by it, others found it scary.
Either way, the story was being rewritten: Edison might have been the first to reproduce the human voice, but we now knew that Edouard-Léon Scott of Martinville had been the first person to record it.
Six months after the release of what was now recognized as the world’s first vocal recording, Giovannoni and Feaster were working on another audio when they realized they had made a huge mistake: They had played Au Clair De La Lune in twice the speed.
When they corrected it, the voice was not that of a girl, but that of Scott de Martinville himself.
History had to be rewritten once more! Scott died of an aneurysm in near anonymity, a year after discovering Edison’s phonograph.
He was buried in an unmarked grave because his family could not afford a tombstone. In his will, Scott asked his children to ensure that he and his invention were not forgotten.
In 2015, UNESCO inscribed “The first recordings of the voice of humanity: the phonautograms of Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville (c.1853-1860)” on its Memory of the World register.