From Pig Bristle to Your Ear
April 9, 1860: Oldest Recording of Human Voice
Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville, a Parisian bookseller, was the first person to capture sound. In 1857 the patented the phonautograph, a device that funneled sound waves through a horn with a stylus. The stylus translated sound waves into traced lines on a turning cylinder. Funny thing is, it never occurred to Scott that his sound recording might be played back. He only sought to make a visual record of sound that could be studied at a later date.
So when Scott crooned into his phonautograph leaving lines in a soot covered piece of paper he had no idea that nearly a hundred fifty years later some audio historian rifling through his patent records would come up with a way to play back his “recordings”.
Scientists at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory were able to make digital maps of the recovered soot etchings and then play them back using a virtual stylus. What they got in 2008 was Scott’s 1860 rendition of “Au Clair de la Lune” which then became the earliest known recognizable recording of the human voice, and the earliest musical recording.
Scott was inspired when he happened to read about the anatomy of the human ear in the course of his business. His phonautograph was constructed as an analog of the ear canal, eardrum and ossicles. The functions of the ear canal and eardrum were simulated by a funnel-like horn or a small open-ended barrel with a flexible membrane of parchment or other suitable material stretched over the small end. A pig bristle or other very lightweight stylus was connected to the membrane, sometimes by an indirect linkage which roughly simulated the ossicles and served as an amplifying lever.
The bristle traced a line through a thin coating of lampblack—finely divided carbon deposited by the flame of an oil or gas lamp—on a moving surface of paper or glass. The sound collected by the simulated ear and transmitted to the bristle caused the line to be modulated in accordance with the passing variations in air pressure, creating a graphic record of the sound waves.