World's oldest sound recording played in US

“It’s magic!” exclaimed David Giovannoni when he heard a shaky and distant voice fill a spacious auditorium at Stanford University.

This 10-second excerpt from the French folksong Au Clair de la Lune made before the American Civil War was nothing less than the world’s earliest sound recording.

The excerpt was played at this prestigious university where the Association for Recorded Sound Collections (ARSC), an international, non-profit organisation dedicated to research, study, and information exchange surrounding all aspects of recordings and recorded sound, was holding its annual conference on Friday.

The recording was discovered in February at the archives of the French Academy of Sciences in Paris by First Sounds, an informal association of audio historians, recording engineers, sound archivists, scientists and others who aim to make mankind’s earliest sound recordings available to all people for all time.

The group was established in 2007 by David Giovannoni, who is a member of the ARSC.

“It’s a very haunting song,” Giovannoni said of Au Clair de la Lune, the melody that Parisian inventor Edouard-Leon Scott de Martinville recorded on a “phonautograph,” a device that engraved sound waves onto a sheet of paper blackened by the smoke of an oil lamp.

The scientific breakthrough occurred on April 9 1860, or 17 years before Thomas Edison invented his phonograph.

It is, however, necessary to give Edison his due. At the time, the French were unable to come up with a device that would allow reproduction of his musical recording.

As many as 148 years would pass before scientists at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory converted these scans into sound using technology developed to preserve and create access to a wide variety of early recordings on mechanical carriers, such as phonograph discs and cylinders.

For Patrick Feaster, a historian with First Sounds, that was a significant discovery for many reasons.

“We already knew that Leon Scott had invented sound recording but he just had never got to the stage of playing back his recordings,” said Feaster.

“But we have made a number of discoveries here. First of all we have now heard one of his recordings, something he never dreamed of happening, but it does push the history of recording sound quite a step back.
Up until this point you could listen back to something as early as 1888. That was about as far as you could go.

“Secondly,” the historian continued, “People tended to present Scott’s phonautograph as a dry scientific instrument but Leon Scott was really hoping to record interesting stuff: he wanted to preserve great music, great speeches.”

Meanwhile, Giovannoni recalled that the French inventor felt a lot of resentment toward Edison, pointing out in a 1878 manuscript that there existed a French device allowing not just to hear but also to record speech.

If this discovery does not cast a shadow on Thomas Edison’s claim to be the first inventor of a phonograph, it at least reminds the world of the French contribution to scientific progress in sound recordings, Giovannoni argued.

“I think that this just makes stronger the bond between the French and the Americans,” he said.

Anne Hagert, a collector from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, came here just to hear the historic recording and find out who was the woman who sang the song.

According to the historian from First Sounds, the singer was probably a daughter of the inventor.

Another miracle is that a sound file of Au Clair de la Lune can be heard at www.firstsounds.org.

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