Phonautogram

Feature

Friday, January 06, 2012

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.

One of these recordings has just been entered into the Library of CongressNational Recording Registry. The sound is the inventor singing the folk song “Au Claire de la Lune."

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.  

Our series Inside the National Recording Registry receives production support from the Library of Congress.

 

<p><img src="http://media40.wnyc.net/media/photologue/photos/EMBED_in-the-land-UBLS_DS_00031_rgb___.jpg" alt="" width="620" height="401" /></p>
<p>Still from <em>In the Land of Blood and Honey </em>&mdash;<em> </em>Ajla (Zana Marjanović) turns away from Danijel&rsquo;s (Goran Kostić) advances<em>. </em>(Dean Semler/Courtesy of FilmDistrict and GK Films)</p>

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)

    Music Playlist
  1. They All Laughed
    Artist: Tony Bennett
    Album: Steppin' Out
    Label: Sony
    Purchase: Amazon
  2. Au Clair de la Lune
    Artist: Various Artists
    Album: Sterntaler Spieluhrmelodien
    Label: zyx
    Purchase: Amazon

Contributors:

Erik Beith, Ben Manilla and Devon Strolovitch

Comments [1]

Chris Covert-Bowlds from Seattle

Great show on Éduoard Léon-Scott's phonautograms. Both to him, and to Audio historian Patrick Feaster, archeophonist David Giovannoni, and physicist Carl Haber, who were part of the team that restored and preserved the recording, the French expression I would use is "Chapeau!" ("hat", as in "hats off to you!"). More mild French expression: "Felications", (congratulations)
Great scientific-historic recovery/detective work! If Éduoard Léon-Scott has any living relatives, I hope they have been informed of this great re-discovery! Including the tuning fork, which allowed the modern recovery, was amazingly prescient! Thanks for this great program!

Jan. 08 2012 10:30 PM

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