Charles Cros proposed a means of reproducing sounds from Scott’s phonautograms weeks before Edison explicitly considered similar possibilities. Edison made a machine that demonstrated his ideas; Cros did not. Who, then, was the first to invent sound reproduction?
The idea that sound could be captured and retrieved at will is an old one in French literature. In the 16th century Rabelais wrote of the sounds of a fierce battle, frozen in ice by an early winter, becoming audible in the spring as the ice thawed. In the 17th century Cyrano de Bergerac imagined clockwork books that spoke to their readers, and Sorel fantasized about sponges absorbing spoken messages and releasing the messages when squeezed.
Photography offered a new analogy to 19th century authors, as one Parisian theater critic wrote in 1847:
Just as light captures images on a polished plate, we will soon preserve the sonic undulations of an air by Mario, a tirade of Miss Rachel, or a couplet by Frederick Lemaitre. We will hang on the wall the serenade of Don Pasquale, the imprecations of Amille, Ruy Blas's declarations of love – each daguerreotyped one evening when the artist was in high spirits.
Charles Cros was well-situated to combine literary aspirations with technical approaches. He was a highly-regarded author of poetry and theatrical monologues in his day. Yet he’d studied medicine as a young man and avidly pursued interests in Victorian technologies. He suggested improvements to telegraph equipment. He invented a method of color photography and made some of the earliest color photographs. He proposed constructing powerful lights, mirrors, and lenses to communicate with the inhabitants of Mars or Venus. He was a man of energy and ideas.
The idea he’s best remembered for came in 1877. Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone of 1876 had shown that sound waves striking a diaphragm could be reconstituted by a second diaphragm on the receiving end. Cros suggested a means of driving a second diaphragm from the traces of a phonautogram, thereby reconstituting previously-recorded sound waves. In other words, he conceived of playing back recorded sound.
He jotted this idea onto a sheet of paper, sealed it into an envelope, and deposited it with the French Academy of Sciences in April 1877 – weeks before Edison independently concluded that he could build devices to “store up and reproduce automatically at any future time the human voice.” Cros’ method required a series of photographic and chemical engraving processes; Edison’s purely mechanical approach required none of that. Cros did not have the resources to prototype his idea; Edison did.
When news of Edison’s phonograph reached Paris, Cros asked the Academy to open his sealed packet to prove the priority of his concept. But unlike Scott and Edison, Cros did not build what he conceived. In fact, his patent application, filed in Paris several months later, did not include a single drawing or diagram to illustrate how his concept might look or work in practice. Indeed for most of 1877 Cros had no name for his idea. He eventually christened it the “paléophone” – from the Greek palaios (ancient) and phon (voice).
His approach was certainly more technically-grounded than the fantasies of Rabelais and Cyrano de Bergerac. But unlike Scott and Edison, Cros never built a paléophone to test, demonstrate, or improve upon his idea. Nonetheless, with frequency and vehemence throughout 1878, his literary friends argued in the press that he should be recognized as the first inventor of sound reproduction. If Edouard-Léon Scott de Martinville had such well-connected and impassioned allies, they did not come to his aid in 1878 by making the parallel case that he should be recognized as the first inventor of sound recording. Today in France, Charles Cros is celebrated as the inventor of sound reproduction; Scott and his invention of sound recording were all but forgotten until his recordings were played back for the first time in 2008.
Charles Cros spells out his concept for playing back phonautograms in this handwritten note deposited at the French Academy of Sciences on April 30, 1877. Although the idea of retrieving recorded sounds on demand had been the stuff of literary fantasy for centuries, this is the first known written account that spelled out a procedure that might actually have worked.
Cros never built a paléophone, nor was a paléophone ever built to his specifications. Emile Berliner may have come closest when, in 1887, he began his research into sound recording by exploring the practicality of Cros’ concepts. His experiments quickly advanced past Cros’ proposed process; yet Cros’ ideas are evident in Berliner’s first sound recording patent (US372786) granted November 8, 1887. Berliner named his invention the “gramophone.” Its disc records became synonymous with sound playback for most of the 20th century, first as “78s” then as “45s” and “LPs”. For more information about Berliner’s initial experiments – and to hear them – see Edouard-Léon Scott de Martinville, Inventor of Sound Recording: A Bicentennial Tribute at Archeophone Records.