Did you know there are audio recordings that predate Thomas Edison's phonograph by almost 20 years? The phonautogram was invented by a Frenchman named Éduoard Léon-Scott and patented in 1857, translating sound waves (shakily) onto sheets of paper. But for the last century, no one had been able to decode the information on Léon-Scott's sheets and listen, until a team of scientists and historians figured it out.
Audio historian Patrick Feaster, archeophonist David Giovannoni, and physicist Carl Haber were part of the team that restored and preserved the recording, which was made by a quill attached to a vibrating membrane. “That’s the principle all modern sound media are based on,” explains Feaster. “Telephones, sound recording and reproduction, microphones, loud speakers — it all goes back to that idea that he could harness those vibrations and use them to capture the world of sound."
CORRECTION: Due to a confusion between different versions of the recording, Léon-Scott's "Au Claire de la Lune" plays in our story twice as fast as it was originally recorded. The recording can be heard at the correct speed here. We regret the error.
This story was produced by Ben Manilla and Devon Strolovitch for BMP Audio.
Our series Inside the National Recording Registry receives production support from the Library of Congress.
David Giovannoni examines one of Éduoard Léon-Scott's phonautograms in the archives of the Académie des Sciences of the Institut de France. (Isabelle Trocheris)
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