The world's first audio recording is creepy, not made by Edison

At the French site Anecdote du Jour you can listen to the world's first audio recordings, made in 1859 and 1860 by Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville. The recordings, one of a tuning fork being struck and two of de Martinville singing, are scratchy and thoroughly eerie. All the more so because de Martinville himself never heard them. In fact, nobody heard them until 2008.

The reason we credit Edison with the invention of recorded audio and not de Martinville is that de Martinville failed to invent a way to play back his recordings.

De Martinville's phonautograph turned sound waves into 2-dimensional squiggles on soot-blackened paper or glass. It was meant to be a lab instrument, to help study acoustics, not a method of recording and playing back sound. Apparently, several decades passed before anybody even realized the sounds could, theoretically, be played back.

Via Greg Gbur

Image: One of de Martinville's phonautograms. A recording of a tuning fork made in 1859.


  1. I was going to mention a news story from a few years back about the minute effects of sound waves being readable from the surfaces of ancient spun pottery, but when I looked it up to refresh my memory it looked like there still hasn’t been any real-life example of such a thing yet. Fun idea, though.

    1. I know using Mythbusters as a source is like writing a term paper using Wikipedia, so I’m going to double-hell for this one, but they tried this and was busted.

  2. Another recording using the same process was responsible for an awesome on-air meltdown by one of the normally sober hosts of BBC Radio 4’s Today programme –

  3. What’s interesting is that the construction of Bell and Blake’s first phonautograph included a human ear as part of the design. Not a design based on the human ear, but one from a cadaver.

  4. This is the coolest thing I’ve come across in a while. To think that he never knew that decades later people all over the world would be listening to him sing.

  5. It’s more than just a few decades; the singing was recorded in 1860, then was played back 148 years later, in 2008.

    Also, was that Martinville himself singing in the link, or was it a lady? Two different sources say two different things. To me, it sounds like a lady. If it is, then who is she?

    1. The page itself says that they slowed down the audio and compared it to other recordings of Martinville and thus concluded that it was him. The second clip is just the first one slowed down.

  6. I had read an article a few years back about ancient pottery that accidentally recorded the sounds around him/her as the potter used a stick to etch a design in a spinning clay pot. Wish I could remember the source… anyone?

    1. That was an idea from French scientist Georges Charpak (physics Nobel prize 1992) who died last year. I don’t think anyone ever came close to find such a recording and to read it.

      1. Mythbusters eventually took it on too, and were unable to record (or play back) anything brushed into clay.. at least not an analog wave. 

        I suppose if one used dots to record binary data, you could write digital audio into clay. Just need something to convert it. :)

  7. There are all sorts of creepy recordings out there.  That includes this Youtube clip of the only recording ever made by Alessandro Moreschi, the last great castrato singer.  He was well advanced in years by then and not considered to be one of the first-rate castrati singers though.

  8. There was a science fiction story several years (and by several, that could be up to 10 or more) about a guy who invents a color organ type apparatus back in the late 18th/early 19th century so that deaf people could see music. He tries to sell Beethoven on the idea and Beethoven, thinking it was supposed to restore his hearing, dashes it off the piano and damages it. When the inventor sees that the sound diaphram was making squiggly scratches, he improves it to record concentric scratches on a glass disk using a diamond stylus and goes around recording operas, performances, speeches, and such, even though he has no way of playing them back. Then a guy in the present (told in parallel) discovers a way to scan and play them by computer, so now you could hear Chopin playing his compositions and such.

    I’m sure I mangled several details, but does anyone remember this and who wrote it? Apparently, he was inspired by the stories above, most of which I’d never heard before.

    1. Thanks! I was going to have to dig through my SF magazines to re-read it – very happy to see it online!

  9. “The Stone Tape”, a BBC TV production from 1972, written by Nigel Kneale – eerie little suspense/horror/thriller about sounds and images recorded on an ancient stone.

  10. Luckily I am an archivist, even better an AMIA member who got to see the presentation/narrative of how this amazing process happened at last year’s conference. these are the guys who got it to play back and figured out that it wasn’t a woman singing (as originally thought) but de Martinville himself. Archiving rocks. 

  11. I recall it being claimed that a  phonautograph was made of President Lincoln’s voice. If it could be located and “played”, even if the quality was no better than these others, at least we’d have a better idea of what his supposedly “high” voice actually sounded like.

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