Discovered: World’s Oldest Audio Recording

I’m attending an audio conference at Stanford this week. Some of you may have seen the front page of yesterday’s New York Times. A significant bit of audio history has just been rewritten.

Until this week’s announcement, the earliest known sound recording was Edison’s 1877 “mary had a little lamb” experiment. Today, we heard a woman’s voice recorded in 1860. We now know that a Parisian named Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville made an audio recording 17 years before Edison (actually, Martinville attempted audio recordings as early as 1853, but they are unintelligible).

This discovery does not diminish Edison – Martinville had no idea how to play back his phonautographs.

The 1860 recording was discovered in an obscure French archive earlier this month by a team of American researchers. It’s quite the detective story. The French phonautograph was extracted via optical techniques developed by Lawrence Berkeley Labs. Raw, semi-processed, and fully-processed results were played publicly today for the first time. A semi-processed MP3 version is on-line here.

What’s really fascinating is that Martinville’s method recorded TWO adjacent tracks. One track was the female voice program while the other track was a tuning fork specified by Martinville as 435 Hz. This of course allowed Berkeley researchers to lock absolute pitch. Brilliant!

This afternoon, I spoke at length with the project’s lead researcher (David Giovannoni) who shared, “we’ve found evidence of even earlier Martinville recordings of similar caliber.” This remarkable story is likely not finished.


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