Long before the advent of modern audio recording technologies, in the mid-19th century, a French inventor named Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville created a device called the phonautograph. This was the earliest known instrument for recording sound. The term “phonautograph” is derived from the Greek words “phono” meaning sound and “graph” meaning to write or draw. The “auto” refers to self-actuating. This literally means “a self-actuating sound writer”. Scott and his phonautograph were discounted and overlooked by historians for more than a century.
Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville was a French printer, bookseller, and inventor who is best known for his pioneering work in sound recording. He was born on April 25, 1817, in Paris, France, and was the son of a printer.
As a young man, Scott de Martinville worked as a printer and bookseller, but he was also interested in scientific experimentation. In the 1850s, he began working on a device that could record and reproduce sound, which he called the phonautograph.
Scott de Martinville continued to experiment with sound recording technology throughout his life, but he was never able to develop a device that could play back recorded sound. Nevertheless, his work on the phonautograph was an important contribution to the history of sound recording, and he is often credited with making the first known sound recording.
Scott de Martinville died on April 26, 1879. In recognition of his contributions, the French government posthumously awarded him the Legion of Honour in 2013, nearly 140 years after his death.
The phonautograph consisted of a horn-shaped mouthpiece attached to a flexible membrane, which vibrated in response to sound waves. A stylus connected to the membrane traced the vibrations onto a piece of paper that was coated with a layer of soot, creating a visual representation of the sound.
The phonautograph was not intended to play back recorded sound. It was an invention for creating a visual representation of sound. Nevertheless, this paved the way for other early sound playback instruments. One of these was the phonograph, which was invented by Thomas Edison in 1877.
The Phonograph Came Later
The phonograph used a similar mechanism to the phonautograph, but instead of tracing sound waves onto paper, it recorded them onto a cylinder that was coated with wax. The recorded sound could then be played back by rotating the cylinder and using a needle to read the grooves.
In 1878, a year after he invented the phonograph, Thomas Edison wrote in a letter to the magazine Scientific American that he had been “informed by a scientific man” about an earlier device that recorded sound. He went on to describe the phonautograph’s use of a membrane and a stylus to record sound waves on a soot-covered surface.
It is not known who this “scientific man” was that informed Edison about the phonautograph, but it is possible that he may have been referring to the French physicist Charles Cros, who had also been working on sound recording technology around the same time as Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville.
Regardless of whether Edison directly acknowledged Scott de Martinville’s work, it is clear that the phonautograph had a significant influence on the development of the phonograph and other early sound recording technologies. Here is a list of names of early sound playback machines leading up to present day:
Wax cylinder recorder (1889)
Disc phonograph (1895)
Odeon Puck Phonograph (1903)
His Master’s Voice phonograph (1909)
Columbia Grafonola (1910)
Wire recorder (1940)
Reel-to-reel tape recorder (1948)
8-track tape player (1964)
Cassette tape player (1965)
Compact Cassette player (1966)
CD player (1982)
MiniDisc player (1992)
MP3 player (1998)
Streaming audio devices (e.g. Spotify, Apple Music) (2000s)
Bluetooth speakers and headphones (2000s)
Smart speakers (e.g. Amazon Echo, Google Home) (2014)
Vinyl turntables (making a comeback in recent years)
One of these early sound playback instrument was the gramophone, which was invented by Emile Berliner in 1887. The gramophone used a flat disc instead of a cylinder to record and play back sound. The disc was coated with a layer of wax, and the sound was etched into the wax using a needle.
As technology advanced, new sound playback devices were developed, including the reel-to-reel tape recorder and the cassette tape player. These devices made it possible to record and play back high-quality audio, paving the way for modern audio recording technologies like the CD and the digital audio file.
Bringing the Phonautograph to Fruition
It took 21st Century computer technology to properly analyze Scott’s sooty impressions on paper. Only then could they devise a way of converting them to real sound.
David Giovannoni, Patrick Feaster, Meagan Hennessey, and Richard Martin created First Sounds. In 2008, they successfully turned Scott’s impressions into sound. This was a remarkable breakthrough, as may be seen in detail via the prior link. One of their successes was an 1860 recording of Au Claire de la Lune .
- Year Started: 1857
- Year Ended: 1878
- Origin Of Name: N/A
- Location Sales: N/A
- Brand Name Predecessor: N/A
- Brand Name Successor: Phonograph
- Owner Original: Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville
- Owner While In Use: Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville
- Owner Successor: N/A
- Year Resurrected: N/A
- What’s Popular Today: Digital Recordings
- Naics Code: 334310
- Location Headquarters: Paris, France