Origins of Sound Recording: The Inventors

Edouard-Léon Scott de Martinville
Edouard-Léon Scott de Martinville  (1817-1879)

Edouard-Léon Scott de Martinville: The Phonautograph

Edouard-Léon Scott de Martinville invented sound recording 20 years before Thomas Edison invented the phonograph. Sound had been invisible and transient since the beginning of time. Scott’s phonautograph recorded it and made it both visible and perm­anent. It was a technological breakthrough, ahead of its time. He did not intend for his phon­autograms to be played back; that concept was another 20 years away.

When Edouard-Léon Scott de Martinville first conceived of sound recording he was an editor and typographer of manuscripts at a scientific publishing house in Paris. One day in 1853 or 1854 he was pouring over a text on human physiology when he envisioned an amazing new possibility. He called it “the imprudent idea of photographing the word.” If photo­graphy could capture fleeting images with lenses modeled on the eye, might not a replica of the ear similarly capture spoken words?
Designs from Scott's patent of 1857
Designs from Scott’s patent of 1857.

Institut national de la propriété industrielle

Descriptions of the ear in the physiology text suggested to Scott how to design a prototype instrument:

I cover a plate of glass with an exceedingly thin stratum of lampblack. Above I fix an acoustic trumpet with a membrane the diameter of a five franc coin at its small end—the physiological tympanum (eardrum). At its center I affix a stylus—a boar’s bristle a centimeter or more in length, fine but suitably rigid. I carefully adjust the trumpet so the stylus barely grazes the lampblack. Then, as the glass plate slides horizontally in a well formed groove at a speed of one meter per second, one speaks in the vicinity of the trumpet’s opening, causing the membranes to vibrate and the stylus to trace figures.

Scott called this process phonauto­graphy”—the self-writing of sound. Of course he didn’t expect perfectly formed letters of the alphabet to emerge from the stylus. But he did believe the calligraphy inscribed in the soot—the words that wrote themselves—embodied a form of natural stenography that would some­day be read as easily as a sten­ographer deciphered his own jottings.

Inscription of the stylus in soot.
The inscription of the stylus in soot, a recorded sound.

Société d'encouragement pour l'industrie nationale

Might a stenographic instrument placed between two men transcribe their conversation in minute detail, regardless of their speed of conversation? Might a writer dictate a fleeting dream in the middle of the night, and upon waking find not only that it has been written, but rejoice in his freedom from the pen—that instrument that struggles with and chills expression?
Interpreting the phonautograph’s inscriptions.
Scott’s study in interpreting the phonautograph’s inscriptions.

Institut national de la propriété industrielle

In 1857 the phonautograph captured the attention of SEIN (Société d'encouragement pour l'industrie nationale)—an association of experts that assessed new technologies and their potential contributions to French industry. Scott spent the summer and fall improving his invention with the support of SEIN and the guidance of its members. They upgraded from a pane of glass, which recorded only a snippet of sound, to a rotating cylinder that could record for 20 seconds or so. They experimented with different arrangements of the recording chain. They made experimental recordings which we can hear today using digital technologies.
Scott’s improved phonautograph 1859.
Scott’s improved phonautograph of 1859.

Institut national de la propriété industrielle

In a presentation to SEIN in October, Scott noted:

Gentlemen, we are in the presence of an invention being born—an entirely new graphic art springing from the heart of physics, of physiology, of mechanics. Each trace of speech that I submit today analyzes the voice: its tonality, its intensity, its timbre. I believe a synthesis is also possible through which the tracing of the words is transformed into a series of signs by mechanical means, and I propose to attempt it. I see the book of nature opened before the gaze of all men, and, however small I may be, I dare hope to be permitted to read it.

In 1859 Scott teamed up with Rudolph Koenig, a builder of precision scientific instruments, to commercialize the phonautograph as a laboratory instrument in the nascent field of acoustical study. In his very first catalog Koenig wrote:

Most empirical sciences possess of a wide range of specialized instruments that gather precise in-depth knowledge of their phenomena. In this sense acoustics trails other experimental sciences by a century, lacking instruments of observation, measurement and analysis, as did astronomy before the invention of the telescope. A means of dissecting sonorous phenomena—a microscope that not only shows sounds but preserves their imprint—is the gap the phonautograph proposes to fill.
Phonautograph sound with 250 Hz.
The frequency of the sound recorded in the top trace could be determined by
counting the vibrations inscribed by a 250 Hz tuning fork on the bottom.

Académie des sciences-Institut de France

The precise measurement of time is essential to the study of sound. The pitch of a sound is the rate at which it vibrates – the more vibrations per second, the higher the pitch. One needed to accurately measure the passage of time to determine the pitch of a sound recorded on a phonautograph. For this purpose Koenig provided a tuning fork which simultaneously traced its vibrations adjacent to the sound recording’s trace in the soot. A tuning fork vibrates at a constant and known frequency. By counting its squiggles in the soot, an experimenter could determine exactly how much time elapsed at any point along the recording.

In 1860 Scott made a number of recordings using this arrangement. He sang songs, he recited excerpts of poetry and plays in several languages. Along with his previous experiments these are humanity’s first recordings of its own voice. And they were made with a visionary time-code technology that would be rediscovered in the 20th century and become the backbone of all communication technologies.
This exhibit continues here: Thomas Edison: The Phonograph

Go back to Who Invented Sound Recording?

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Research further:

First Sounds is the authoritative source of information about Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville. The site reproduces in facsimile every Scott dossier identified to date in Parisian archives in cooperation with the custodial institutions. The facsimiles offer immediate visual access to primary source materials. Derived from high definition scans of handwritten documents or reprinted from long unavailable texts, they trace the invention and development of sound recording in Scott's own words (with commentary by his contemporaries). They also contain an image of each phonautogram.

Principes de Phonautographie (1857)
Scott de Martinville gives his first account of the phonautograph and offers as documentation his very first experiments.

Brevet d’Invention (1857) and Certificat d’Addition (1859)
Scott de Martinville's drawings of his phonautographs survive only in these patent documents.

Graphie du Son (1857)
Scott de Martinville tells of his invention’s progress six months after Principes de Phonautographie.

M. Scott’s Procedures for the Graphic Fixation of the Voice (1857); Jules Lissajous’ Report to the Society (1858); Phonautographe et fixation graphique de la voix (1859)
This is the complete Scott de Martinville dossier preserved by the Société d’encouragement pour l’industrie nationale—the society of prominent men who worked with him in 1857 to develop his invention. We have also included the society's formal assessment of the phonautograph's capabilities and an influential 1859 edition of Scott de Martinville's 'Fixation Graphique de la Voix.'

Fixation et Transcription du Chant (1860)
Scott de Martinville presented this album of phonautograms made in March and April 1860 to Professor Henri Victor Regnault from “his devoted and grateful servant and student”.

Inscription automatique des sons de l’air au moyen d’une oreille artificielle (1861)
Scott de Martinville presented these materials to the Académie des sciences de l’Institut de France to document his ongoing work in phonautography. This deposit and Regnault’s album contain his most technically-adept recordings.

Le problème de la parole s’écrivant elle-même (1878)
Near the end of his life, Scott de Martinville self-published an anthology that documented his work on the “problem of self-recording speech.” He led off with an essay considering the significance of his work in light of Edison’s newly-invented phonograph. This is his concerted and final effort to set the record straight for future generations. Facsimile in French, with English preface.

The Phonautographic Manuscripts of Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville offers transcriptions of the texts in both the original French (annotated to show textual variants) and strict French-to-English translation. It is an invaluable guide to the primary documents reproduced in facsimile at the First Sounds site.

Also essential is the definitive Discography of Scott de Martinville Phonautograms which lists and annotates every known recording made between 1853/4 and 1860 by Scott.

Historians of science at Société d'encouragement pour l'industrie nationale examine Scott’s phonautograph in the context of mid-19th century science and technology in Paris: Chronique d’une invention: le phonautographe d’Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville (1817-1879) et les cercles parisiens de la science et de la technique.

In The First Phonautograph in America Patrick Feaster recounts the story of Charles Bancker’s lost phonautograph – the first in the United States and possibly the first sold by Rudolph Koenig.

Patrick Feaster develops the analogy of photographing sound in Daguerreotyping the Voice: Léon Scott’s Phonautographic Aspirations.

Last updated: July 17, 2017

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