Sunday, March 30, 2008

The World's First No.1 Hit

Please don't miss today's Debt Rattle, March 30 2008

The year is 1860, and a woman is singing “Au Clair de la Lune” into a barrel-shaped horn, which causes etchings to be inscribed on a soot-blackened piece of paper. Called a phonautogram, it’s one spooky blast from the past. Listen to it. Its ghostly sound is eerie to be sure, but it's recognizable as that old song that was a hit before your great-great-grandmother was born.

They had no idea how to play back such things in those days, but we do now, using optical imaging and a “virtual stylus” developed by U.S. audio historian David Giovannoni. The inventor of the ancient (and first) recording process, Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville, was understandably angry at all the attention given to Thomas Edison, who got credit for making the first audio recording 17 years later.

Ilargi: Let’s leave money alone for a moment, and travel back in time. What can I say, I'm fascinated and captivated. Ain't it grand to realize that neither did Bell invent the telephone, nor Edison the phonograph? I find that fascinating as well, because it makes me wonder: what else do we learn that is not true? Anyway, listening to 10 seconds of 1860 gives me the chills. Kind of weird: I'm a huge Rembrandt afficionado, and his work dates back over 350 years. Sound and vision: not the same, I guess.

The recording (link below) is from April 9, 1860, meaning it’s almost 148 years old, and it predates the American Civil War by more than a year. For reference, here are some choice events from the year 1860:
  • John Hanning Speke and James Augustus Grant leave Zanzibar to search for source of the Nile.
  • Battle of the Volturno, Garibaldi defeats the last organized army of the Kingdom of Two Sicilies.
  • Austria, Britain, France, Prussia and the Ottoman Empire form a commission to investigate causes of the massacres of Maronite Christians, committed by Druzes in Lebanon earlier in the year.
  • November 6 - U.S. presidential election: Abraham Lincoln beats John C. Breckinridge, Stephen A. Douglas, and John Bell and is elected as the sixteenth President of the United States, the first Republican to hold that office.

  • The first Convention of Peking formally ended the Second Opium War.
  • Victor Emmanuel, King of Sardinia seizes the whole of the Papal States except Rome (see Vatican City) and unites Italy.
  • Charles Dickens publishes the first installment of Great Expectations in his magazine All the Year Round.
  • South Carolina becomes the first state to secede from the Union.
  • The world's first ocean-going (all) iron-hulled and armoured battleship, the (British) HMS Warrior is launched.

'Magical' song from 1860 knocks Edison off the chart
Audio Researchers Confirm Frenchman's Recording Feat

Phonautogram, April 9, 1860. Courtesy:

Au Clair de la Lune" (French; MP3, 10 sec)

Her voice, sweet and smoky after 147 years, floats through the air, as if the young woman is walking out of a fog to serenade her listeners. "Au clair de la lune," she sings, stealing through the second verse of the classic French folk song by the same name. "Pierrot répondit."

Ten seconds, 11 notes. Then she's gone, her ghostly voice swallowed up again into the ether.

In what they say is the earliest recording ever made of a human voice, researchers at a Stanford University conference on Friday revealed to the world a sound clip with an extraordinary pedigree. Created in 1860 by an obscure French typesetter - nearly two decades before Thomas Edison's invention of the phonograph - the snippet was re-created thanks to the international sleuthing by audio historians, algorithmic alchemy by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory scientists who turned squiggles on paper into sounds, and the passionate push of a collaborative of audiophiles in search of the world's oldest sounds.

"Her voice is ghostly and it's magical, as if she were trying to come into the 21st century to sing for us," said David Giovannoni, the audio historian behind the research. He helped crack the case by unearthing the "phonautogram" that Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville originally made for visual, not audio, playback.

And the detective work happened at a very fast rpm; it was earlier this month that new research sent Giovannoni and his colleagues racing to Paris, where deep in an archived file they discovered Scott's earliest vocal creation - a paper record of what was probably the lilting voice of Scott's daughter.

What would eventually turn out to be the Parisian inventor's historic contribution to the world's sound-scape was "recorded" on a phonautograph, the machine Scott created to capture sounds with a stylus. The device etched its waves onto lampblack-covered paper, a sort of precursor to the carbon copies that died out with the modern photocopier.

Once Giovannoni had optically scanned the squiggle-filled sheet, Earl Cornell and his colleagues at Lawrence Lab took over. Their task: to pick up where Scott had left off nearly a century and a half ago, using high-tech software to coax "Au Clair de la Lune" out of hiding.

"The tracing on the paper provides a picture of the sounds," Cornell said during a Friday session of the conference for the Association for Recorded Sound Collections. He said the challenge was to digitally map out the traces in the 1860 recording, essentially creating images of the sound waves that Scott's crude machine first captured.

Next, they had to clean up the resulting sound clip's "varying speeds and background noises," something they had already learned how to do with the grooves of old 78 rpm records.

As they hurried to decipher the recording in time for the conference, researchers with Giovannoni's First Sounds collaborative used noise-reduction tools to make the still-rough clip "recognizable as sound and somewhat pleasant to the ear," said Richard Martin, owner of a recording label that specializes in early recordings.

"We already knew Scott had invented sound recordings," said Patrick Feaster, the Indiana University professor who first pointed the way to the Parisian archives. "He just never got around to playing them back."

This week, a new breed of audio lovers finally figured out how to do it. In the process, they threw some spotlight on the little-known Frenchman whose achievements have long been eclipsed by Edison's later success at playing back a recorded sound.

"Edison was the guy we always thought" responsible for first recording sound, said Bill Wray, audio engineer with Dolby Labs, who was on hand for Friday's premiere. "These guys today didn't rewrite history - they rewrote what we thought was history."

The First Sounds team is looking for more funding, hoping to continue its quest to find even earlier recordings, though some doubt they exist. And the researchers hope further technological breakthroughs will allow them to spruce up the 1860 recording even more.

Meanwhile, Giovannoni says downloads of the recording are flying off the Internet. At least this week, he says, this ghostly cover of "Au Clair de la Lune" is "the world's No. 1 hit."


Anonymous said...

Cool link, thanks! What an amazing thing, to hear a voice from nearly 150 years ago that has basically lived in soot on a piece of paper all that time.

We apparently learn *a lot* of things that just aren't so. I'm reading a book right now called "Lies My Teacher Told Me." It's a good cross section of some of the "less than accurate" spots in traditional American history, but I'm sure every country has their popular myths.

I wonder what "popular myths" will come out of this difficult period in time. Probably something pretty much along the lines of what we're already being told by the media, would be my best guess.


Anonymous said...

Sorry I have to disagree - for this to count as the earliest recording the inventor would have to provide a means of playback using the technology of the day and he did not. Don`t forget dinosaurs made a record of their passing, shall we count this as the earliest recording? Even Rembrandt, while moving his brush across a painting, spoke to his assistant, this would have modulated the brush stroke, thus recording his voice into the painting. Scientists working 150 years from now might be able to extract that voice. would you call that an earlier recording? Of course not! Edison is correctly credited because he provided both the means to record and playback with the technology of the day.

Anonymous said...

From Anonymous to Anonymous above: which part of the word "recording" did you not understand ?

Anonymous said...

Yet another example of Edison getting credit he did not deserve.

To anonymous #1:

Um, no. Your argument would be credible if you had some sort of relevant example. Dinosaurs were not trying to make a record of their passing, anymore than Rembrandt intended to make an audio recording with painting to be used as the medium.

Scott intended to make an audio recording, and if you RTFA, you'll see (pun intended) that Scott's intent was a visual recording of an audio event.

Playback was never intended. Scott was interested in being able to study the properties of sound, and devised a means to "transcribe" an audio event into a viewable medium.

Mike Nomad

The Lizard said...

Hardly lies. Edison knew the invention is useless without a playback method.

Potters were leaving fingerprint recordings for millennia before somebody realized they could be "played back" to reveal the identity of the potter.

I'm reminded of Bronowski's observation in the Ascent of Man that while French artisans were making windup toys for the elite, British engineers were designing canals and the steam engine.

Anonymous said...

As a engineer, I feel compelled to point out that an invention need not be "useful" to be an invention. The above commentators are correct, the ability to record sound does not require a functioning playback methodology.
Those are two different heads (and buttons) even in modern recording equipment. Two entirely separate functions.