Friday, March 28, 2008

Oldest recorded human voice, now on the Internet

Thomas Edison invented the first real audio recording device, called the phonograph, in 1887. It cut sound waves into a roll of wax. The first thing he recorded was a brief recitation of "Mary Had a Little Lamb" which you can listen to here.

02/19/2013 UPDATE: I have been informed that this recording "is actually a 1927 “reenactment” of what he had done about 50 years earlier. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Thomas_Edison_Mary_had_lamb.ogg Yes, I feel cheated too. :-) See also http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/edison/sfeature/songs.html which point to 1888 as the earliest recording of *Edison’s* voice."
Thanks Andrew for the correction! Never let it be said that the Jolly Bloger lets a mistake go uncorrected, even if it takes five years (Jesus I'm old).

That's amazing. That's Thomas Edison's voice and also the very first real record of a human speaking, and we can all hear it at the click of a button. It gets better though.

In 1857 in France, Edouard-Leon Scott had invented a similar, though less impressive device called the phonautograph that could transcribe sound waves visually onto soot-covered paper, but could not play them back. It was the preliminary research into sound recording that would eventually lead to the phonograph, records, and ultimately the digital music we all love to steal, but by itself it was basically just a novelty.

One of the earlier recordings made on the phonautograph was a woman singing Au Clair de la Lune in 1860. The visual recording that no one ever imagined could possibly be used to reconstruct the sound itself, was given to the patent office in France and forgotten in a file for nearly 150 years.

Just recently, audio historian David Giovannoni took the primitive recording, analyzed it with microscopes and computers, and turned the squiggly scratches set in soot into a digital audio file.

I wish Arthur C. Clarke were alive to see this.

It's really cool that we can hear such an old recording, and even cooler that it was never meant to be heard. It got me thinking though that what's really incredible is how trivial it is for you and me to get it.

Merely 150 years ago the concept of preserving sound waves visually was the height of technology. And now, using methods and devices that came directly out of that technology, we're able to do amazing things with those original recordings and share the results around the entire globe in seconds. And that's cool.

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