Mental Floss

The Oldest Known Audio Recording

Chris Higgins

The New York Times has a great piece today on an 1860 phonautogram of the French folk song "Au Clair de la Lune." Before we go any further, you should make sure there are no children or animals present, and listen to this crazy MP3 clip of the recording. Okay, now that you're back, are you freaked out yet? The scratchy audio sounds like the warbling of a madwoman to me, and would be a great jumping-off point for some auditory horror piece. Anyway....

So the reason this is important (and not just weird) is that the recording predates Edison's famous audio recordings by almost thirty years. The phonautograph audio transcription device was invented by Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville in the late 1850s. It was intended to record audio waves onto a visual medium (in this case, black paper), and playback wasn't part of the system -- the idea was to visually examine the audio waves to study acoustics. Scott's (unrealized) goal was to find a way to "write speech," not record sound per se. (Read more about it at Wikipedia.) Crafty researchers realized that the visual phonautogram could be made audible by applying a "virtual stylus" to the recorded sound waves, so they enlisted scientists at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory to decode the audio linked above.

Read the New York Times piece for a nice bit of history and historical detective work!