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148-Year-Old Phonautogram MP3

It seems almost silly to point, prominently, from a small site to a large one, especially from a site as focused as this one to something as massive as the New York Times. But for anyone who missed the front-page report yesterday about the discovery of an audio recording that’s 148 years old, here’s the story. A full 17 years before Thomas Edison recorded himself reciting “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” a French inventor made his own recording of “Au Clair de la Lune.” This was only recently discovered in what the Times aptly describes as an act of “audio excavation.” The tinkerer’s name was Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville, and his device, pictured below, courtesy of the Times, is called the phonautogram.

The device had been known to students of recording history, but what hadn’t been known was the existence of an actual recording the phonautogram had succeeded in making.

The Times story, written by Jody Rosen, explains:

Scott’s device had a barrel-shaped horn attached to a stylus, which etched sound waves onto sheets of paper blackened by smoke from an oil lamp. The recordings were not intended for listening; the idea of audio playback had not been conceived. Rather, Scott sought to create a paper record of human speech that could later be deciphered.
I don’t believe that the phonautogram is mentioned in the essay “The Life and Death of Media” by Bruce Sterling in the forthcoming MIT book Sound Unbound, edited by DJ Spooky, but Sterling’s piece provides good background in what could perhaps best be described as the Betamaxes of history. Sterling, who directs the Dead Media Project with science fiction writer Richard Kadrey, lists other semi-forgotten audio endeavors, including “Gaumont’s chronophone, the synchronoscope, the movietone, phonofilm, the graphophonoscope, the vitaphone” and various other fantastic product lines that few if any spell-checking software programs today would recognize.

By coincidence, I had lunch with Kadrey yesterday. Asked about the discovery he replied,

Martinville’s genius wasn’t that he made his “phonautograph” to record sound; it was that he made it for us. Like the Voyager space probe, which was launched into deep space with a gold disc of earth images and sounds, the voice Martinville captured on his paper recording wasn’t for 19th century Frenchmen, but for the aliens who, one day in the future, would find and decipher his message.

Good news, Édouard. The aliens got it. Thanks.

The Times has posted an 11-second audio of the recording (MP3). Its sound is muffled enough to be considerably less legible than the visage in the Shroud of Turin. What’s especially interesting is the nature of the noise that muddies the original signal. It sounds very much like the static that results from wind rushing against a microphone — even though the process of converting the phonautogram from, as the paper describes it, “squiggles on paper to sound” was done without any actual acoustic machinery. Scientists at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley used visual scanning equipment to achieve the results. Pictured here, also courtesy of the paper, is historian David Giovannoni holding a phonautogram:

Get the full story, dateline 1860, at nytimes.com.

By Marc Weidenbaum

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  • Marc Weidenbaum founded the website Disquiet.com in 1996 at the intersection of sound, art, and technology, and since 2012 has moderated the Disquiet Junto, an active online community of weekly music/sonic projects. He has written for Nature, Boing Boing, The Wire, Pitchfork, and NewMusicBox, among other periodicals. He is the author of the 33 1⁄3 book on Aphex Twin’s classic album Selected Ambient Works Volume II. Read more about his sonic consultancy, teaching, sound art, and work in film, comics, and other media

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