Can You Hear Me Now?

phonautographI’m reading a fascinating book, How We Got to Now. It is an intriguing look at history through a different, connective lens. It very much reminds me of James Burke’s Connections series. But I’m getting ahead of myself. I will give a full review of the book when I am done with it.

Last night’s read led to a wonderful little discovery. If I were to ask you, “Who invented audio recording?” or maybe, “Who first intentionally recorded airborne sound waves?” you would probably answer, “Well, good ol’ Thomas Edison, of course.” I know I would have, until last night.

I am aware that some archeologists deduced that there might be sound waves encoded in ancient clay pots; the pots of wet clay, spinning on the thrower’s wheel being rubbed by some form of brush, would have vibrated with the ambient sounds and encoded those vibrations into the pot. But that wasn’t intentional recording, which was a restriction in my questions above.

It turns out that a fellow by the name of Edouard-Leon Scott de Martinville, was issued a patent in 1857 for a device he called the phonautograph. Thomas Edison’s invention of the phonograph came 20 years later, in 1877.

The history of Martinville is a little confused. At least, after reading last night I did some small research, and I end up with a couple of different stories. Steven Johnson, in How We Got to Now, suggests that Martinville was a stenographer, and that he came up with the idea of the phonautograph as a means of automating stenography; record the sound, and then read back the recording. The emphasis being on “read” it back; learn to recognize sound wave patterns in the same way you recognize these funny squiggles as words. Another source says he was a bookseller, and he stumbled on a book discussing the anatomy of the human ear, and he built the phonautograph to be a mechanical analogy to the human ear in order to study sound.

Slice it however you want, the stories are somewhat similar, and the result is the same. The dude imprinted airborne sound waves on a medium that allowed the sound waves to be viewed. He did not consider a method of playback. That wasn’t his goal. That’s why Tommy Edison wins the “recording” prize, because he considered both record and reproduce.

But – and here’s the fun part – more than a century later, while it turns out that humans are incapable of reading sound wave patterns, computers are. Some crafty folk examined some of Martinville’s original scrolls and scanned them into a computer, and lo and behold out came Martinville’s voice from 1860, singing in French, “Au Clair de la Lune”; 17 years before Edison applied for the patent of the phonograph.

Now, many of you reading this hardly recognize phonographs, or records as we called them in my day. Most of you think of digital recording; which, in the end, is what let us hear the earliest intentionally recorded human voice of Martinville. But that brings up another interesting twist.

Edison envisioned the phonograph as a way for people to send messages to each other. Record your message, pop it in the mail, and your auntie puts it on her phonograph and listens to your “letter”. Alexander Graham Bell envisioned the telephone as a way for people to enjoy concerts from miles away. Put a phone in the theater, and people in another city could enjoy the concert. Through practical use, the two inventions ended up with flipped purposes. The phonograph brought concerts to other cities, and through time. And the telephone became the personal message system.

I was shocked to learn that the first Trans-Atlantic phone cable was laid the same year I was born. That first Trans-Atlantic cable could carry a whopping 25 simultaneous phone calls. Now, well, who needs cables? Tech that we take for granted is really that new.

It makes you look at the “Can you hear me now” guy in a different light.

About Sifu Keith Mosher

My new book, "Astro Boy, Sensei, and Me" is available now, as is my Sci-Fi joy ride, "On a Sphere's Edge". I have a Bachelor of Media Arts degree from USC. I have been an Audio Producer / Engineer, a Law Office Manager, and I am currently an Author and a Martial Arts Instructor.
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