Recorded Sound: Pre-phonograph

French printer and inventor Édouard-Léon Scott is credited with being the first to produce an image of the shape of sound waves.

This is the first of a series of posts exploring the history of the technology used to record sound, and how advances in these technologies affected music.

Many are familiar with Thomas Edison’s phonograph (which we will explore later), but the first attempt to record sound dates to 1857. Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville was a French printer by trade, which afforded him the ability to read all of the latest scientific journals as he was printing them. This undoubtedly fueled his desire to become an inventor, and in 1857 he invented, and secured a French patent for a device he called the phonautograph. It was with this machine that Scott was able to record the shape of sound waves. While his phonautograph was nowhere near a commercial success, it paved the way for inventors such as Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell while proving a valuable tool for scientists.

Scott’s phonautograph worked similarly to Edison’s phonograph, which would come two decades later. Both inventions used a large horn to collect sound, and a marking implement attached to a diaphragm at the end of the horn to record the waves on a rotating cylinder. Scott’s marking implement was a stiff brush that scratched the shape of sound waves on cylinders covered in ink or lampblack. These cylinders were not able to be used for playback, since they carried only an image of the sound wave, not any grooves or impressions. Scott did team up with instrument maker Rudolph Koenig to produce a small number of phonautographs for scientific purposes, but was unable to profit from the sales.

Scott's phonautograph

Scott's phonautograph

Dipping his toe into the world of medical science, Alexander Graham Bell adapted Scott’s phonautograph in an attempt to discover how the human ear detected sounds. He took an ear from a cadaver and traded the diaphragm at the end of the horn for the eardrum, enabling him to use the recording horn to trace the vibrations of the eardrum as sound waves on a moving glass strip coated with a layer of carbon. Other scientists followed suit and further adapted the device to make the resulting illustrations of sound waves easier to photograph for publication in scientific journals. One variation replaced Scott’s stiff wire brush with a paintbrush dipped in ink that would draw the waves on a moving piece of paper. Another replaced the original cylinder with a moving glass plate covered in soot. Using the glass plate made the readouts much easier to photograph.

Bell's ear phonautograph

Charles Cros, a French poet and inventor, serves as the link between Scott’s phonautograph and Edison’s phonograph. On April 30th, 1877, Cros delivered an envelope to the Academy of Sciences in Paris containing a letter detailing his new invention: the Paleophone. Using the Paleophone, Cros aimed to take the tracings from Scott’s phonautograph and transfer them onto a playable media source. As luck would have it, Cros did not get a chance to follow up on his method for completing this task before Edison publically announced his invention of the phonograph.

Bell’s ear phonautograph is a somewhat unusual example of a phenomenon that seems to have stuck with the recording industry. Inventors create and adapt technology based on their curiosity and needs. While the ear phonautograph did not catch on, some other inventions have. For example, microphones started out as simple sound transmitters, with a metallic strip resting on a membrane with a metal point contact to complete a circuit. Now, the recording industry uses a multitude of different microphones for different applications. All of these microphones work a little differently, but can be traced back to the basic design of the simple sound transmitter that dates back to the 1860’s.

The Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory has developed technology that allows some of Scott’s sound wave examples to be played back. Some of the sound files were released in 2008, and can be heard here: These were never meant to be played back, so their quality is understandably poor and somewhat eerie. However, they offer a glimpse into the earliest days of sound recording so we might be able to see how far technology in this field has come.

Next, we will explore the rise and fall of Edison’s phonograph, and how this invention affected the availability of music.