Earliest Human Voice Recording Debuts Online


Extra Credit
Historical American Music Recordings

Much of early American music is lost. However, the Digital Library of Appalachia, a collaboration between several member libraries, has an online repository of Appalachian music dating from the 1930s onward. It is, of course, nowhere near as old as the phonautograph recordings made available by First Sounds, but it does document music that provided critical foundations for popular music in the United States. Song recordings and interviews can be accessed in MP3 format at the link below.

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--D. Nagel

This weekend, Stanford University hosted the first public performance of the earliest known human voice recording--one that predates Thomas Edison's invention of the phonograph by 17 years. The organization that made playback of the sound possible, First Sounds, has also posted the recording online for the public.

The recording, or "phonautogram," was made April 9, 1860 by French inventor Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville on a device he dubbed the "phonautograph," which recorded sound by scratching a piece of paper that had been blackened by the smoke of an oil lamp. It features a girl--possibly the inventor's daughter--singing about 10 seconds of the French folk song "Au clair de la lune, Pierrot répondit."

The trouble was that while Scott was able to record sounds, he never came up with a device for playing them back. Hence First Sounds launched an initiative to do just that. First Sounds is a collaborative of individuals and organizations that work to preserve recorded sound. Founders include Patrick Feaster of Indiana University, David Giovannoni, Richard Martin, and Meagan Hennessey.

The technology to play back the recording was developed at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and involved scanning the grooves of the recordings onto a computer, then playing back the audio using a "virtual stylus."

Other recordings from the phonautograph also exist, including one supposedly of a human voice from 1857, but the organization has not yet been able to decode it in a format that makes the recording audibly recognizable.

More information about the "Au clair" recording and additional phonautograph recording samples can be found at First Sounds' site in MP3 format here.

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About the author: David Nagel is the executive editor for 1105 Media's online education technology publications, including THE Journal and Campus Technology. He can be reached at [email protected].

Proposals for articles and tips for news stories, as well as questions and comments about this publication, should be submitted to David Nagel, executive editor, at [email protected].

About the Author

David Nagel is the former editorial director of 1105 Media's Education Group and editor-in-chief of THE Journal, STEAM Universe, and Spaces4Learning. A 30-year publishing veteran, Nagel has led or contributed to dozens of technology, art, marketing, media, and business publications.

He can be reached at [email protected]. You can also connect with him on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/davidrnagel/ .