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Home /History / The First Sound Recording

The First Sound Recording

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By Elaine Elliott

Have you ever wondered how sound recordings were first made?

Long before the analog era of vinyl and cassettes, there were inventors creating audio using historical mechanisms like the phonautograph and phonograph.

And similar to a lot of music history, there isn’t a clear answer to who deserves credit for reproducing sound.

 

Edouard-Leon Scott started experimenting with sound in the 1850s. But his recordings were transcribed in readings rather than actual audio. He traced these written recordings on a phonautograph.

 

So what exactly is a phonautograph? The device uses a thin stylus to record sound waves onto paper similar to an earthquake seismograph. The machine was inspired by the eardrum and looks similar to a megaphone. By cranking a lever, the tracer records the sound waves onto paper or glass using a carbon coating of ink.

 

For several years, Scott’s efforts fell short and the recordings were very brief and crude. Even sound historians have a difficult time deciphering these readings.

 

By 1860, he was able to record a sample of the song “Au Clair de la Lune.” This attempt was more successful because he wrapped the phonautograph’s sheet of recording paper around a cylinder (to allow for longer recordings) and used a tuning fork rather than handwriting the vibrations.

 

Due to these changes, the recording of “Au Clair de la Lune” is oftentimes considered the first sound recording. You can listen to these recordings at FirstSounds.org. Many listeners agree that the files have a very eerie Victorian sound that is hard to decipher behind all the fuzzy static.

 

Unfortunately, Scott’s recording didn’t have a playback feature.     

 

Which leads us to the first playback of recorded sound…

 

In 1877, Thomas Edison’s phonograph had the capability to repeat sound and speed up the recordings. Some of his first recordings were “May Had a Little Lamb” and recorded questions asking the listener if they liked the phonograph.

 

Surprisingly, Edison was unaware of Scott’s phonautograph when he invented the phonograph. It wasn’t until a year later in 1878 that he was informed of Scott’s earlier attempts while exhibiting the phonograph at the Smithsonian.

 

So now the answer is up to you – who takes credit for the first sound recording? Scott’s written recording or Edison’s audio playback? Either way, both have made it into the history books when discussing the history of the first sound recording.

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