Friends of the Phonograph

The Phonautograph



Sound Recording Predates Edison Phonograph

All Things Considered, NPR, March 27, 2008

Thomas Edison wasn't the first person to record sound. A Frenchman named Edouard-Leon Scott de Martinville actually did it earlier.

He invented a device called the phonautograph, and, on April 9, 1860, recorded someone singing the words, "Au clair de la lune, Pierrot repondit." But he never had any intention of playing it back. He just wanted to study the pattern the sound waves made on a sheet of paper blackened by the smoke of an oil lamp.

A group of researchers found some of his old phonautograph papers and used a computer program to play the recording. They are presenting it publicly for the first time on Friday at Stanford University.


Edouard-Leon Scott de Martinville invented the phonautograph in 1857. National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution


Leon Scott's Phonautograph and Phonautograms

The Phonautograph of Edouard-Leon Scott de Martinville has always been recognized as a scientific device that was able to capture sound for observation. But there was never any evidence that his machine could make recordings that could be played back and actually heard...until now. With the use of computer technology and with the demonstration of someone (perhaps Scott's daughter) singing the words "Au clair de la lune, Pierrot respondit" on a blacked sheet of paper, the history of recorded sound has been redefined.

Scott's goal of visualizing sound that resulted in the creation of his paper "record" (which he called a phonautogram) should not take away from Edison's invention of the phonograph. The fact remains that Edison was the first to record and reproduce sound. The remarkable recording of Scott's, however, should now be considered the birth of the record and his machine at the very least recognized as preliminary work for Edison's Phonograph even though it took nearly 150 years for Scott's record to "speak".


The birthday of "sound writing" on April 9, 1860 has now become one of the Friends of the Phonograph's Red Letter Days. Friends will now have the opportunity to blow out candles, eat cake and listen to recordings at birthday parties for both Edouard-Leon Scott de Martinville's 'Au clair de la lune" and Thomas Edison's "Mary had a little lamb" (December 6, 1877).

Put those dates on your calendar...they are events worth remembering, and celebrating!


Thomas Edison's original tin foil Phonograph, 1877 ( Courtesy of Edison National Historic Site)



Click here to listen to NPR's "All Things Considered" for their story on this event, including a digital rendition of Scott's paper recording.

Click here to listen to NPR's "Day to Day" for their story on this event, including a digital rendition of Scott's paper recording.

Click here to listen to the BBC News reporting of this event.



Click on the Phonographia logo on any page to return to the previous Gallery


Phonographia Home Page