“The fact is it’s recorded in smoke..”

PhonautographA fascinating, if slightly eerie, sound has surfaced 148 years after it was recorded – That’s 17 years before Edison spoke “Mary had a little lamb” onto his phonograph. The Professor pointed to this New York Times article about the recording yesterday and the BBC have followed up today with this online report and they also have an audio report [RealPlayer file] which includes a recording of Thomas Edison and an interview with the great-grandson of the inventor responsible, Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville. First Sounds uncovered the 1860 recording, and they have others – “Scott recorded someone singing an excerpt from the French folksong “Au Clair de la Lune” on April 9, 1860″ [mp3 file]. From the First Sounds press release [pdf file]

Roughly ten seconds in length, the recording is of a person singing “Au clair de la lune, Pierrot répondit” – a snippet from a French folksong. It was made on April 9, 1860 by Parisian inventor Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville on his “phonautograph” – a device that scratched sound waves onto a sheet of paper blackened by the smoke of an oil lamp.

And from the BBC report

“When I first heard the recording as you hear it … it was magical, so ethereal,” audio historian David Giovannoni, who found the recording, told AP.

“The fact is it’s recorded in smoke. The voice is coming out from behind this screen of aural smoke.”

Previously, the oldest known recorded voice was thought to be Thomas Edison’s recording of Mary had a little lamb. The inventor of the light bulb recorded the stanza to test another of his inventions – the phonograph – in 1877.

“It doesn’t take anything away from Thomas Edison, in my opinion,” Mr Giovannoni told Reuters.

“But actually, the truth is he was the first person to have recorded [sound] and played it back.”

The recording had some unfortunate consequences for a Radio 4 newsreader this morning.

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  • Pete Baker


    Just in case anyone missed this when I posted it initially.

  • Gregory

    I use to sit amongst the relics of Radio Normandy when I was at work, I use to talk to the old coots at Decca and PYE.

    In my view those people outranked the Beatles.

    The technology wasn’t what it is today, the transistor was supposed to be the big kick up the arse. I was introduced to it all as a child.

    I can remember that, replacing gear that had lasted since before the war.

    I’m sitting here with an Ipod on the sofa, and I was once in the same room as people who were doing radio in the 1930s.

    It is a bit like knowing somebody who knew General Collins or Lord Carson.