Scientists Restore Earliest Known Sound Recording

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The World's Earliest Sound Recording

Listen to the reconstructed clip of a woman singing "Au Clair de la Lune" in 1860. Recording courtesy of First Sounds.

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Scientists at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, along with other collaborators, have recovered the earliest-yet-discovered human sound recording, made 17 years before Thomas Edison's famed sound recordings.

The lab worked alongside the First Sounds initiative team to reconstruct a 10-second clip of a woman singing "Au Clair de la Lune" that dates back to 1860.

"(The recording) had definite tones and, in addition, with a little imagination, (you) can hear the words," said Earl Cornell, a scientist at the lab, who worked on the project.

David Giovannoni, a First Sounds initiative historian who worked on the project, said the initiative's collaborators had set out to uncover early sound recordings.

"Last year a few of us decided that we wanted to hear some of the world's oldest recordings before we died," Giovannoni said.

The initiative members found the phonautogram, an image of the song's sound waves, at the French Patent Office and the French Academy of Sciences in early March.

The image was made in 1860, before Edison's 1878 sound recordings, by phonautograph inventor Edouard-Leon Scott de Martinville.

The sound vibrations of the recovered song had been mapped onto a lamp-soot paper with a stylus, Cornell said.

Giovannoni scanned the images of the sound waves and sent them to Cornell and lab scientist Carl Haber to convert into sound files using their software.

In the images of the clip, there were 3 million points that the scientists had to measure and put back together into the 10 seconds of sound.

After piecing the sound together, the scientists sent the files back to Giovannoni, who broke the sound files up into the correct sections and speed.

"(The result) is a sound recording that has been heard all around the world many millions of times in the last week," Giovannoni said.

Though Scott was able to record sound, there was no way to actually hear what he had transcribed until now.

"What Scott did was remarkable, being able to record sound, but he had no way of playing it back," said Paul Israel, director and general editor of the Thomas A. Edison Papers at Rutgers University. "Edison's playing back sound is the basis for the modern sound industry."

Giovannoni hopes to hear Scott's remaining 18 recordings. They are currently seeking financial support to undertake the process.

"It's a pretty significant finding, not just that we found this, but that we're able to hear back to what was spoken in a Paris home or apartment in 1860," Giovannoni said. "That's pretty incredible."


Contact Christine Chen at [email protected]

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