The Phonautograph: Hear Sound Recorded in 1860
By James Grahame
The history of recorded sound will have to be amended slightly, thanks to the successful playback of an optical Phonautogram dated April 9,1860 - almost eighteen years before Thomas Alva Edison's famed phonograph was awarded a patent on February 19, 1878. The oldest playable recording has long been considered an 1888 excerpt of a Handel Oratorio captured on a a fragile Edison wax cylinder at London's Crystal Palace (Edison's system used wax-coated cylinders, unlike Emile Berliner's competing gramophone with its more familiar 78 RPM discs).
The New York Times is reporting that a 10-second snipped of "Au Clair de la Lune" was recently discovered by a team of American audio historians in Paris. The recording was captured with a phonautograph, a machine that captured a visual representation of sound on lamp-blackened paper rolls. It wasn't intended for playback, since no technique for translating squiggles on paper into sound existed at the time. The man behind the system was an almost-forgotten Parisian named Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville.
The research team, led by audio historian David Giovannoni, discovered a sheet of rag paper that held remarkably well preserved sound wave tracings. They turned the paper over to scientists at the Lawrence Berkeley lab who retrieved the sound with the help of modified software that was originally intended to play high-resolution maps of grooved records. The result is an eerie fragment of song by an anonymous vocalist: Au Clair de la Lune [mp3].
Researchers Play Tune Recorded Before Edison [NY Times]