Hear the First Recording of the Human Voice (1860)

When inven­tor Édouard-Léon Scott de Mar­t­inville sang a nurs­ery rhyme into his phonoau­to­gram in 1860, he had no plans on ever play­ing this record­ing back. A pre­cur­sor to the wax cylin­der, the phonoau­to­gram took inputs for the study of sound waves, but could not be turned into an out­put device. How amaz­ing then, that 150 or so years lat­er, we can hear the voice of Scott in what is now con­sid­ered the first ever record­ing of human sound.

What you will hear in the above video are the var­i­ous stages of recon­struct­ing and reverse engi­neer­ing the voice that sung on that April day in 1860, until, like wip­ing away decades of dirt and soot, the orig­i­nal art is revealed.

Scott had looked to the inven­tion of pho­tog­ra­phy and won­dered if some­thing sim­i­lar could be done with sound waves, focused as he was on improv­ing stenog­ra­phy. And so the phonoau­to­gram took in sound vibra­tions through a diaphragm, which moved a sty­lus against a rotat­ing cylin­der cov­ered in lamp­black. What was left was a wig­gly line in a con­cen­tric cir­cle.

But how to play them back? That was the prob­lem. Scott’s inven­tion nev­er turned a prof­it and he went back to book­selling. The inven­tion and some of the paper cylin­ders went into muse­ums.

In 2008, Amer­i­can audio his­to­ri­ans dis­cov­ered the scrib­bles and turned to the Lawrence Berke­ley Nation­al Lab­o­ra­to­ry and a soft­ware called IRENE. The soft­ware was designed to extract sounds from wax cylin­ders with­out touch­ing the del­i­cate sur­faces, and the first pass revealed what they thought at first was a young woman or child singing “Au Clair de la lune,” the French nurs­ery rhyme (not the Debussy piano work).

How­ev­er, a fur­ther exam­i­na­tion of Scott’s notes revealed that the record­ing was at a much slow­er speed, and it was a man–most prob­a­bly Scott–singing the lul­la­by.

The video shows the stages that brought Scott back to life: Denois­ing a lot of extra­ne­ous sound; stretch­ing the record­ing back to nat­ur­al time; “tun­ing and quantizing”–correcting for imper­fec­tions in the human-turned cylin­der; clean­ing up har­mon­ics; and final­ly adding fur­ther har­mon­ics, reverb and a stereo effect.

The result is less an unrec­og­niz­able ghost sig­nal and more a touch­ing sound of human­i­ty, desir­ing some­how to have their voice live on.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Opti­cal Scan­ning Tech­nol­o­gy Lets Researchers Recov­er Lost Indige­nous Lan­guages from Old Wax Cylin­der Record­ings

Hear Singers from the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Opera Record Their Voic­es on Tra­di­tion­al Wax Cylin­ders

Down­load 10,000 of the First Record­ings of Music Ever Made, Thanks to the UCSB Cylin­der Audio Archive

Ted Mills is a free­lance writer on the arts who cur­rent­ly hosts the artist inter­view-based FunkZone Pod­cast and is the pro­duc­er of KCR­W’s Curi­ous Coast. You can also fol­low him on Twit­ter at @tedmills, read his oth­er arts writ­ing at tedmills.com and/or watch his films here.

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