The Oldest Voices That We Can Still Hear: Hear Audio Recordings of Ghostly Voices from the 1800s

What his­to­ry nerd doesn’t thrill to Thomas Edi­son speak­ing to us from beyond the grave in a 50th anniver­sary repeat of his ground­break­ing 1877 spo­ken word record­ing of (those hop­ing for lofti­er stuff should dial it down now) Mary Had a Lit­tle Lamb?

The orig­i­nal rep­re­sents the first time a record­ed human voice was suc­cess­ful­ly cap­tured and played back. We live in hope that the frag­ile tin­foil sheet on which it was record­ed will turn up in someone’s attic some­day.

Appar­ent­ly Edi­son got it in the can on the first take. The great inven­tor lat­er rem­i­nisced that he “was nev­er so tak­en aback” in his life as when he first heard his own voice, issu­ing forth from the phono­graph into which he’d so recent­ly shout­ed the famous nurs­ery rhyme:

Every­body was aston­ished. I was always afraid of things that worked the first time.

His achieve­ment was a game chang­er, obvi­ous­ly, but it was­n’t the first time human speech was suc­cess­ful­ly record­ed, as Kings and Things clar­i­fies in the above video.

That hon­or goes to Édouard-Léon Scott de Mar­t­inville, whose pho­nau­to­graph, patent­ed in 1857, tran­scribed vocal sounds as wave forms etched onto lamp­black-coat­ed paper, wood, or glass.

Edison’s plans for his inven­tion hinged on its abil­i­ty to repro­duce sound in ways that would be famil­iar and of ser­vice to the lis­ten­ing pub­lic. A sam­pling:

  • A music play­er 
  • A device for cre­at­ing audio­books for blind peo­ple
  • A lin­guis­tic tool
  • An aca­d­e­m­ic resource of archived lec­tures
  • A record of tele­phone con­ver­sa­tions
  • A means of cap­tur­ing pre­cious fam­i­ly mem­o­ries. 

Léon Scot­t’s vision for his pho­nau­to­graph reflects his pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with the sci­ence of sound.

A pro­fes­sion­al type­set­ter, with an inter­est in short­hand, he con­ceived of the pho­nau­to­graph as an arti­fi­cial ear capa­ble of repro­duc­ing every hic­cup and quirk of pro­nun­ci­a­tion far more faith­ful­ly than a stenog­ra­ph­er ever could. It was, in the words of audio his­to­ri­an Patrick Feast­er,  the “ulti­mate speech-to-text machine.”

As he told NPR’s Talk of the Nation, Léon Scott was dri­ven to “get sounds down on paper where he could look at them and study them:”

…in terms of what we’re talk­ing about here visu­al­ly, any­body who’s ever used audio edit­ing soft­ware should have a pret­ty good idea of what we’re talk­ing about here, that kind of wavy line that you see on your screen that some­how cor­re­sponds to a sound file that you’re work­ing with…He was hop­ing peo­ple would learn to read those squig­gles and not just get the words out of them.

Although Léon Scott man­aged to sell a few pho­nau­to­graphs to sci­en­tif­ic lab­o­ra­to­ries, the gen­er­al pub­lic took lit­tle note of his inven­tion. He was pained by the glob­al acclaim that greet­ed Edison’s phono­graph 21 years lat­er, fear­ing that his own name would be lost to his­to­ry.

His fear was not unfound­ed, though as Conan O’Brien, of all peo­ple, mused, “even­tu­al­ly, all our graves go unat­tend­ed.”

But Léon Scott got a sec­ond act, as did sev­er­al uniden­ti­fied long-dead humans whose voic­es he had record­ed, when Dr. Feast­er and his First Sounds col­league David Gio­van­noni con­vert­ed some pho­nau­to­grams to playable dig­i­tal audio files using non-con­tact opti­cal-scan­ning tech­nol­o­gy from the Lawrence Berke­ley Nation­al Lab­o­ra­to­ry.

Dr. Feast­er describes the eerie expe­ri­ence of lis­ten­ing to the cleaned-up spo­ken word tracks after a long night of tweak­ing file speeds, using Léon Scot­t’s pho­nau­to­grams of tun­ing forks as his guide:

I’m a sound record­ing his­to­ri­an, so hear­ing a voice from 100 years ago is no real sur­prise for me. But sit­ting there, I was just kind of stunned to be think­ing, now I’m sud­den­ly at last lis­ten­ing to a per­for­mance of vocal music made in France before the Amer­i­can Civ­il War. That was just a stun­ning thing, feel­ing like a ghost is try­ing to sing to me through that sta­t­ic.

Scan­ning tech­nol­o­gy also allowed his­to­ri­ans to cre­ate playable dig­i­tal files of frag­ile foil record­ings made on Edi­son devices, like the St. Louis Tin­foil , made by writer and ear­ly adopter Thomas Mason in the sum­mer of 1878, as a way of show­ing off his new-fan­gled phono­graph, pur­chased for the whop­ping sum of $95.

The British Library’s Tin­foil Record­ing is thought to be the ear­li­est in exis­tence. It fea­tures an as-yet uniden­ti­fied woman, who may or may not be quot­ing from social the­o­rist Har­ri­et Mar­tineau… this gar­bled ghost is excep­tion­al­ly dif­fi­cult to pin down.

Far eas­i­er to deci­pher are the 1889 record­ings of Pruss­ian Field Mar­shall Hel­muth Von Multke, who was born in 1800, the last year of the 18th cen­tu­ry, mak­ing his the ear­li­est-born record­ed voice in audio his­to­ry.

The nona­ge­nar­i­an recites from Ham­let and Faust, and con­grat­u­lates Edi­son on his aston­ish­ing inven­tion:

This phono­graph makes it pos­si­ble for a man who has already long rest­ed in the grave once again to raise his voice and greet the present.

Relat­ed Con­tent

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

Suzanne Vega, “The Moth­er of the MP3,” Records “Tom’s Din­er” with the Edi­son Cylin­der

A Beer Bot­tle Gets Turned Into a 19th Cen­tu­ry Edi­son Cylin­der and Plays Fine Music

400,000+ Sound Record­ings Made Before 1923 Have Entered the Pub­lic Domain

The Web Site “Cen­turies of Sound” is Mak­ing a Mix­tape for Every Year of Record­ed Sound from 1860 to Present

Stream 385,000 Vin­tage 78 RPM Records at the Inter­net Archive: Louis Arm­strong, Glenn Miller, Bil­lie Hol­i­day & More

– Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author, most recent­ly, of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo and Cre­ative, Not Famous Activ­i­ty Book. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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