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.
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.