The First Recording of a Human Voice

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Phonautograph, used for the first recording of a human voice

What was the first recording of a human voice?

What did they say?

Who recorded it?

When did they record it?

How did they record it?!

Find the Firsts takes on the topic: the first recording of a human voice.

Highlights:

  • American audio historian David Giovannoni discovered the recording in Paris in December 2007.
  • The device that recorded the first human voice was a phonautograph, and its inventor was Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville.
  • The phonautograph, however, doesn’t play back sound.
  • The April 9, 1860 recording is also the first recorded song.

In December 2007, an American audio historian named David Giovannoni and his research assistant traveled to Paris, France, eager to uncover the oldest audio recordings ever made. They knew of a particular 19th-century French inventor, and they wanted to see if samples of his work existed.

They arrived at a patent office in Paris called the Institut National de la Propriété Industrielle. There, Mr.  Giovannoni found recordings from 1857 and 1859 that the inventor included in his patent application.

There was a further clue at the patent office: a vague reference in the inventor’s writings to deposits made at “the Academy.” And so, the researchers went to the French Academy of Sciences, hoping this place contained more recordings.

The French Academy of Sciences, where the first recording of a human voice was discovered
The French Academy of Sciences, where the first recording of a human voice was discovered (Image source: worldkings.org)

There, the historian discovered a pristine sheet of rag paper 9 inches by 25 inches, dating April 9, 1860.

Next, he sent all the scans to the Lawrence Berkeley lab, where scientists Carl Haber and Earl Cornell worked to convert them into sound. The scientists optically scanned the pages and processed the scans into digital audio files. As a result, they could play back recordings. The audio file where they could hear a human voice was from the paper dating April 9, 1860.

The Recording

The 20-second recording contains an excerpt of the French folk song “Au Clair de la Lune.” The male voice is anonymous, possibly that of the inventor himself.

The full translated lyrics to “Au Clair de la Lune” go like this:

“By the light of the moon,

My friend Pierrot,

Lend me your quill

To write a word.

My candle is dead,

I have no light left.

Open your door for me

For the love of God.”

By the light of the moon,

Pierrot replied:

“I don’t have any quill,

I am in my bed

Go to the neighbor’s,

I think she’s there

Because in her kitchen

Someone is lighting the fire.”

By the light of the moon

Likeable Lubin

Knocks on the brunette’s door.

She suddenly responds:

“Who’s knocking like that?”

He then replies:

“Open your door

for the God of Love!”

By the light of the moon

One could barely see.

The pen was looked for,

The light was looked for.

I don’t know what was found,

But I do know that the door

Shut itself on them.

You can listen to the first recording of a human voice on firstsounds.org, the website developed by the historians that discovered the recordings. The audio file is in the section “Au Clair de la Lune – By the Light of the Moon (April 9, 1860) [#36].”

There is also a sound restoration sequence of the audio on YouTube, using a 10-second clip.

The Invention and the Inventor

The device that recorded the first human voice was called a phonautograph, and its inventor was Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville. The phonautograph channeled sound waves through a barrel-shaped horn with a stylus at the end, translating the waves into traced lines on a paper (blackened by the soot from an oil lamp) on a turning cylinder. The resulting page was called a phonautogram.

Scott designed the device to record sound but not play it back. His goal with the invention was to make a visual record of sound that people could study later. Audio playback didn’t occur to Scott. Thomas Edison would later invent (in 1877) the phonograph, the first machine that could record sound and play it back.

A 1857 model of the phonautograph
An 1857 model of the phonautograph

When Scott heard of Edison’s invention and the praise it received the world over, he was crestfallen since he was unable to profit from the phonautograph. Scott wrote:

“What are the rights of the discoverer versus the improver? Come Parisians, don’t let them take our prize…I beseech all stout-hearted men and I thank God some still remain to proclaim my name in this matter. For I am getting old, the father of two sons, and all I can leave them is my good name.”

Léon Scott died the following year, on April 26, 1879. His recordings did finally find acclaim, 150 years later.

Portrait of Edouard-Léon Scott de Martinville, inventor of the phonautograph
Portrait of Edouard-Léon Scott de Martinville, inventor of the phonautograph (Image source: nps.gov)

The Legacy

Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville did make a mark in history. Consider the following:

  • The April 9, 1860 recording is also the first song ever recorded.
  • The earlier samples of his work are the first sound recordings ever produced.
  • Another of Scott’s phonautograms, dating around 1860, is the earliest known recording of intelligible human speech.

The Library of Congress added Scott’s phonautograms to the National Recording Registry in 2010, viewing them as “culturally, historically, or aesthetically important.”

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