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.”