At The Dawn Of Recorded Sound, No One Cared

May 22, 2017
Originally published on May 25, 2017 7:11 am

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of the man who invented recorded sound — Edouard-Leon Scott de Martinville. He beat the more well-known inventor Thomas Edison by 20 years, though his accomplishments were only recognized over the last decade.

While the uses of recorded sound seem obvious now — music, news, voice messages — none of it was obvious to Scott or Edison when they made the first recordings. It's a story that has some lessons for today's aspiring inventors.

In 1857, Scott patented the earliest known sound recording device, the phonautograph — a device with a big funnel for catching sound and a needle attached to parchment that caught the vibrations and tracked them on soot-coated glass. Scott attempted several recordings of instruments, speech and of himself singing the song, Clair de Lune.

But Scott never heard that recording. We can only hear the scratchy, haunting, but recognizably human sounds of those recordings now because almost a decade ago some audio archaeologists created a computer program to play them.

As strange as it seems, all the French inventor cared about was seeing what sound looked like.

"The idea of playback just didn't occur to him" says Emily Thompson, a professor at Princeton who teaches the history of sound technology. "He wanted to understand how sounds worked. He's part of a tradition of finding ways to render sound visible so that you could look at it and learn about it."

Scott proved that vibrations are truly how sounds came to our ears. But Thompson says the scientific community had trouble accepting his breakthrough.

"A sound separated from a sounding body was just sort of a conceptual leap," she says. "I'm not sure people had the cultural context to invent this stuff."

Photography had been around for decades, so the idea of recording a moment in time visually made some sense.

"Scott and others were thinking about we're going to have to find a way to daguerreotype the voice," says David Giovannoni, who was part of the team that recovered the audio from Scott's recordings. "[Scott's] basically saying, 'I want to photograph the voice.' "

There is no evidence that shows Edison knew about Scott's breakthrough when he stumbled onto sound recording. Initially, he was just trying to improve Alexander Graham Bell's telephone.

Years later, an Edison assistant wrote: "We were sitting around. We'd been working on the telephone — yelling into diaphragms. And Edison turned to me, and he said, 'If we put a needle or a pin on this diaphragm, it'll vibrate, and if we pull a strip of wax paper underneath it, it should leave marks. And then if we pull that piece of paper back, we should hear the talking.' "

Yet, no one knew what to do with this invention. It took 20 years to figure out that music was the killer app.

Both Edison and Scott were recently honored at an event at Edison labs in West Orange, N.J. The event featured a remarkable moment where the great-grandsons of both men met and shook hands.

It was an acknowledgment that would have meant a great deal to Scott. He had long given up on his sound etchings when he read that Edison's new invention, the phonograph, was being shown at the French Academy of Sciences. He wrote the academy in protest saying that his work had been used by that "New York electrician."

The Academy ignored Scott's letter. He died shortly after and did not live to see recorded sound become popular.

But his story and the history of recorded sound reveals that even a breakthrough invention can seem insignificant if there isn't a clear market for its use. That's a lesson today's inventors should keep in mind.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

This year, another inventor, Edouard-Leon Scott de Martinville, would have turned 200 years old. If you're wondering who, he's the Frenchman who beat Thomas Edison in the first recording of sound. Edison's New Jersey lab recently brought together both inventors' great-grandsons.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Edouard-Leon was my great-grandfather.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: It is a great pleasure to meet and to welcome a fellow scholar and a fellow great-grandson of an inventor (unintelligible).

(APPLAUSE)

CORNISH: NPR's Laura Sydell was in the audience. After that, she set out to learn why both men even wanted to record sound in the first place.

LAURA SYDELL, BYLINE: In 1857, Scott de Martinville patented the earliest known sound recording device, the phonautograph. He recorded himself singing the song "Clair De Lune."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

EDOUARD-LEON SCOTT DE MARTINVILLE: (Singing "Clair De Lune").

SYDELL: But Scott never heard that recording. We can hear it now because almost a decade ago some audio archaeologists used a computer to play back his recordings. Scott recorded sound using a needle that etched its vibrations onto a plate of glass. As strange as it seems, all the French inventor cared about was seeing what sound looked like.

EMILY THOMPSON: The idea of playback just didn't occur to him.

SYDELL: This is Princeton professor Emily Thompson. She teaches the history of sound technology.

THOMPSON: He wanted to understand how sounds work. He's part of a tradition of finding ways to render sound visible so that you could look at it and learn about it.

SYDELL: Scott proved that vibrations are truly how sounds come to our ears. But the scientific community had trouble accepting his breakthrough.

THOMPSON: Sound separated from a sounding body was just sort of a conceptual leap that I'm not sure people had the cultural context to invent this stuff.

SYDELL: But they did know about photographs, says David Giovannoni. He's part of the team that recovered the audio from Scott's recordings.

DAVID GIOVANNONI: Scott and others were thinking about we're going to have to find a way to daguerreotype the voice. He's basically saying, I want to photograph the voice.

SYDELL: There's no definitive evidence that shows that Edison knew about Scott's breakthrough when he stumbled onto sound recording. Initially, he was just trying to improve Alexander Graham Bell's telephones. Years later, an Edison assistant wrote this, as read here by Giovannoni.

GIOVANNONI: (Reading) We were sitting around. We'd been working on the telephone, yelling into diaphragms. And Edison turned to me and he said, if we put a needle or a pin on this diaphragm it'll vibrate. And if we pull a strip of wax paper underneath it, it should leave marks. And then if we pull that piece of paper back we should hear the talking.

SYDELL: At first, no one knew what to do with this invention. It took 20 years to figure out that music was the killer app.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SCOTT: (Singing "Clair De Lune").

SYDELL: Edouard-Leon Scott de Martinville had long given up on his sound etchings when he read that Thomas Edison's new invention, the phonograph, was demonstrated at the French science academy. He wrote the academy, saying that his work had been used by that New York electrician. Scott was ignored. He died shortly after and did not live to see recorded sound become popular. But his story may have a lesson for inventors - even if you've got a scientific breakthrough, it helps to know you've got a market that wants it. Laura Sydell, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.