The Oldest Oldie, Revisited

Slate's Culture Blog
June 4 2009 3:04 PM

The Oldest Oldie, Revisited

On March 28, 2008, American audio historians David Giovannoni and Patrick Feaster announced that they had unearthed a recording of the human voice made in April 1860, predating Thomas Edison's invention of the phonograph by nearly two decades. The find was epochal, toppling paradigms and reconfiguring the history of recorded sound. It was also romantic, with a backstory fit for a steam-punk fairy tale. The recording was made by an obscure Parisian typesetter and inventor, Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville, using a contraption called the phonautograph, which rendered sound in visual form. (Lab scientists in Berkeley used a "virtual stylus" to extract sound from Scott's soundwave tracings.) The result was a startling sonic resuscitation : a haunting young woman's voice, drifting out of a fog bank of static, crooning a snippet of the French folk song "Au Clair de la Lune."

Giovannoni and Feaster have continued digging in Paris archives for Scott's phonautograph recordings, or "phonautograms," and last week, at the annual meeting of the Association for Recorded Sound Collections, they unveiled some more astonishing finds, including a poetic recitation in Italian, the earliest audible record of recognizable human speech, dating from sometime in April or May 1860. They also announced a revision to their "Au Clair de la Lune" discovery. Because of a miscalculation in playback speed, the phonautogram released in 2008 was a kind of Chipmunks version of the original. In fact, the performer captured by Scott's machine on April 9, 1860, was not a young woman after all but a man, singing deliberately, a bit haltingly—in all likelihood, the voice of Léon Scott. (All of the phonautograms can be heard on Giovanonni and Feaster's Web site .)

I have played the March 2008 version of the phonautogram hundreds of times in the last year, always relishing the image of a young lady, in a corset and funny hat, warbling into Scott's phonautograph horn. Turns out, the ghostly girl-singer was just that—a phantasm. But the new, slower "Au Claire de la Lune" gives us another, perhaps even more romantic scene to savor: the inventor himself, fiddling with the gizmo that, eventually, would change history.

Jody Rosen is a Slate contributor.