Most of us are used to recording sounds and voices at the push of a button, whether it’s on a voicemail, with a camera or voice recordings from professional dictation machines. Sound recording has come a long way since its inception. What we now take for granted was once nothing short of a scientific revelation.
What were the first ever recorded sounds, and how did they come into being? Here’s a brief overview of these complicated questions.
Recording sound in the 19th century
In the 1850s, Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville first recorded sounds—decades before the first telephone call or the phonograph. However, it’s a bit of a tricky question and answer. De Martinville didn’t record the first sounds to be played back; rather, he recorded tracings of sounds, which were meant to be read instead of heard.
The concept is largely the same as seismographs; they record evidence of earthquakes, but, obviously, we don’t play them back later. De Martinville called this a phonautograph. He used a vibrating membrane connected to a thin stylus to replicate an ear. As sounds made the membrane and stylus vibrate, they would create lines on the paper—sound waves. The idea was that people could learn to read them, but that ended up being more difficult than de Martinville expected.
In this case, these 1850s sounds were actually made audible in 2008. While the earliest versions of sound recordings sounded more like a squawk, he was able to create a recording of Claire de la Lune in 1860 using a new, improved version of his recording device. Today that recording is available for everyone to hear.
There’s still some debate about which recordings constitute the first recorded sounds. Due to the primitive nature of the machines de Martinville used, some recordings were eventually audible, like the song clip, while others were far less successful. Essentially, the first-ever successfully recorded sounds occurred sometime in the late 1850s to 1860, depending on what you define as successful.
One of the most disappointing parts of the story is that, because de Martinville was unable to play back the sound recordings in his own time, he never got credit for the first recorded sounds in his lifetime. Meanwhile, Edison was able to create a functioning phonograph in 1877, while Alexander Graham Bell placed the first telephone call in 1876.
Edison had also recorded voice recordings and song snippets, but those recordings have not survived to the present day—we know about them based on his research notes. In 1878, he was able to record the sound of a coronet and someone reciting Mary Had a Little Lamb.
When Edison learned about de Martinville’s invention, he was reportedly surprised that someone invented a machine that could record sound—but there was no way to play it back.
The next time you use dictation machines for voice recordings, you’ll know the fascinating history about how sound recording came to be.
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