WASHINGTON — Inscribed on soot-blackened paper, the muffled sounds from more than 150 years ago play back like the “wa wa” of an unseen teacher in the Peanuts cartoons. It would be impossible to know that someone was playing the coronet and guitar, although other fragments, from a dramatic speech from Shakespeare’s Othello, might be discerned if you knew the lines by heart in French.
Yet these sound bites and other snippets, unveiled May 29 by historians at the annual meeting of the Association for Recorded Sound Collections, are the earliest known recordings. A bunch of wavy lines scratched by a stylus onto fragile paper that had been blackened by smoke from an oil lamp date from 1857. That’s 20 years before Edison invented the phonograph.
Parisian inventor Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville never intended for the soot-lined imprint of the sound waves to be played back, the historians reported. But the inventor hoped the visual patterns of the sound waves he had recorded using a hornlike device with the stylus attached resembling an artificial ear — called a phonautograph — might one day be read like sheet music to recreate a singer’s voice or the timbre of a musical instrument.
Instead, these visual renditions of sound, known as phonautograms, languished at the French patent office and elsewhere in Paris for some 150 years. In 2008, record historian David Giovannoni of Derwood, Md., and his colleagues, part of an informal group of researchers known as First Sounds, uncovered the first cache of them. Last year, he and First Sounds colleague Patrick Feaster of Indiana University in Bloomington played what appeared to be a recording of a young girl singing a 10-second snippet of the French folksong “Au Clair de la Lune,” which Léon Scott had recorded in 1860.
But a group of thought-to-be-lost Léon Scott phonautograms was found late last year in Paris and dates from 1857. “It was immediately apparent that this would be some of the most important [phonographic] excavations to date,” Giovannoni said.
Sound historian Sam Brylawski, former head of the Library of Congress’ recorded sound division in Washington, D.C., and now affiliated with the University of California, Santa Barbara, said the new findings are important on several levels. These are not only the first known recordings, Brylawski notes, but are “providing the full picture of the history of recorded sound.… This is a biography unfolding.”
Yet until last fall, Feaster said, he and his colleagues weren’t sure they’d be able to play any of the oldest phonautograms. Among the problems: The wavy lines etched by the stylus sometimes looped back on themselves. And the side of the stylus, instead of the narrow tip, sometimes seemed to have scraped the surface of the sheet.
Using a technique employed in producing audio for movies, Feaster managed to coax some fuzzy sounds from the 1857 recordings. He also realized that phonautograms his team had previously transcribed, using a laser as a virtual stylus, had been played back at twice the actual speed. What sounded like a girl singing the French folksong was actually Léon Scott singing, Feaster now concludes.
In 1878, some two decades after his invention, Léon Scott was devastated when Thomas Edison received accolades from around the world for the invention of the phonograph. “Come Parisians, don’t let them take our prize,” Léon Scott exhorted in a memoir. “I beseech all stout-hearted men and I thank God some still remain to proclaim my name in this matter. For I am getting old, the father of two sons, and all I can leave them is my good name.”
Léon Scott died a year later. Now his unearthed recordings have finally found acclaim.