Origins of Sound Recording: Frequently Asked Questions

Scott phonautograph demonstration 1857
Edouard-Léon Scott de Martinville demonstrates his phonautograph in 1857.
What did Scott intend his phonautograph to do? In his words, Scott sought to make spoken words “write themselves”—what today we’d call “voice-to-text” technology. Moreover, he speculated that subtle nuances of expression could be read by eye from the intricate, wavy lines made by speaking. In practice he could see volume, pitch, and other elements of expression in his recordings. But neither he nor anyone else could actually read the recordings as texts.

Was Scott’s phonautograph useful and used? Most certainly! The phonautograph made sounds both visible and permanent. It was one of the first instruments to graph natural phenomena, and as such it was used in laboratories and universities for decades. It informed the nascent field of acoustics.

If Scott’s phonautograph was so significant, why was it essentially forgotten and only recently remembered? Because technology did not exist to prove it captured the full complexity of the sounds it heard. Only recently have digital technologies made this possible. Hearing Scott’s voice makes his accomplishments seem more real.
 
Thomas Edison demonstrates his phonograph in 1878.
Thomas Edison demonstrates his phonograph in 1878.
Didn’t Scott think of playing back his recordings? No. It would be 20 years before anyone conceived of playing them back.

If Scott was the first to record sound, why is Edison heralded as the inventor of sound recording? Because Edison invented a machine that played back the sounds it recorded! This captured public attention and imagination in ways that writing sounds alone could not.

Some say Charles Cros invented sound reproduction. What’s that about? Cros conceived of playing back Scott’s phonautograms weeks before Edison conceived of the phonograph, but he did not produce a working model of his invention. His proposed method was more complicated than Edison’s, and the practicality of his approach was never demonstrated.

Could Edison have known of Cros’ proposal to reproduce sound? No. When Edison conceived of the phonograph, Cros’ proposal was in a sealed envelope held in confidence by the French Academy of Sciences. There was no way Edison could have known of it.

How did Edison conceive of the phonograph? Initially as a way to time-shift and speed-shift telephone messages, then as a means of capturing airborne sounds directly and playing them back without a telephone as intermediary.

Was Scott’s phonautograph the inspiration for the phonograph? No. Edison’s inventive aim was to make recordings that could be played back. Not only was the phonautograph a record-only device, Edison did not believe it recorded sounds accurately enough for his purposes.

Do Scott’s accomplishments take anything away from Edison? No. Edison independently discovered sound recording and was the first to play back sound. His phonograph stands as a marvel of 19th century invention, as does Scott’s phonautograph.
 

Last updated: July 17, 2017

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