27 March 2008

World's Oldest Voice Recording Uncovered, 17 Years Before Thomas Edison's "First"

The haunted warble of a French folk song nearly 148 years ago is the oldest recording of the human voice.

And it was made a whole 17 years before Thomas Edison made his historic message, "Mary Had a Little Lamb" on a phonograph, which is the landmark event in the history of recorded sound.

The 10-second recording was made by a Parisian inventor, Edouard-Leon Scott de Martinville on April 9 1860, when Emperor Napoleon III, the last monarch of France, was on the throne.

Scott de Martinville's gadget, a "phonautograph", was a device that scratched sound waves onto a sheet of paper blackened by the smoke from an oil lamp. Edison's breakthrough, in 1877, was based on tinfoil wrapped around a cylinder. The foil was indented by a stylus which moved in response to vibrations from a mouthpiece.

Unlike Edison, whose great achievement was to not only record but also play back the recording, Scott de Martinville was never able to hear what was traced on the smoked paper.

It took 21st-century technology and the diligence of a team of US audio historians, recording engineers and scientists, using digital imaging to track the tiny groove in the paper, to make his dream come true.

The initiative was supported by First Sounds, a collaborative US project aimed at resurrecting long-lost early recordings.

The recording, comprising a snippet of the song "Au clair de la lune," can be heard here via mp3.

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