[conspire] rewriting history
ruben at mrbrklyn.com
Sun Mar 30 20:27:21 PDT 2008
Earliest recordings preceded Edison's A 10-second song clip was captured
in 1860 as an etching on paper. The phonograph came along 17 years later.
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By Thomas H. Maugh II, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
Researchers said Friday that they have played back the oldest audio
recording ever made, a 10-second snippet of singing made 17 years before
Thomas Alva Edison patented the phonograph.
Using technology originally designed to play records without touching
them, a team at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory was able
to convert a series of squiggly lines etched onto smoked paper into
an ethereal voice singing "Au Clair de la Lune, Pierrot répondit,"
a refrain from a French folk song.
ADVERTISEMENT The piece was played publicly for the first time Friday
morning at a meeting of the Assn. for Recorded Sound Collections at
Stanford University by historian David Giovannoni, who unearthed it this
month in the archives of the French Academy of Sciences.
"Just to hear that little snippet of sound is, like, Wow, I am communing
with the past," said communications historian Jonathan Sterne of McGill
University in West Montreal, Canada, who has listened to it online. "We
are playing back a recording that was never meant to be heard."
The recording of an anonymous singer was made April 9, 1860, on a device
known as a phonautograph, invented by Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville,
a Parisian typesetter and tinkerer.
The device was meant to visualize sounds, not play them back.
In essence, the device was very similar to Edison's phonograph.
A barrel-shaped horn captured the sounds and transferred them to a
vibrating stylus. The stylus converted the sound waves into squiggles
that were recorded on a sheet of smoked paper that moved under it.
Edison's key contribution was replacing the smoked paper with a wax
cylinder, which allowed the music to be played back. The oldest previously
known playable recording, on such a cylinder, was a small segment of a
Handel oratorio captured in 1888.
"The devices are so similar that when Edison's assistants got a working
phonograph, people like Alexander Graham Bell, who had been working with
a phonautograph, said, 'Why didn't I think of that?' " Sterne said.
Scott went to his grave arguing that Edison had misappropriated his
invention, but he also dismissed Edison's device, Sterne said. "Scott
said Edison didn't get it; the important invention is writing the sound
down, visualizing it," he said. "Reproducing it is incidental."
The recordings were discovered by Giovannoni of Derwood, Md., and
historian Patrick Feaster of Indiana University, who are among the
founders of First Sounds, an organization that aims to "make mankind's
earliest sound recordings available to all people for all time."
They began searching in December in the French patent office, where they
found two phonautograph recordings, or phonautograms, from 1857 and 1859
that Scott had attached to his patent application. Attempts to play them
did not produce intelligible sounds, however.
Clues from Scott's writings then led them to the Academy of Sciences,
where this month they found several other phonautograms, including the
April 1860 recording.
Giovannoni and Feaster made a high-resolution photograph of the
9-by-25-inch phonautogram and sent it to the Berkeley lab. There,
engineers Carl Haber and Earl Cornell used previously developed technology
to convert the recording into a digital soundtrack.
Feaster, Giovannoni and First Sounds audio engineer Richard Martin then
minimized background noise and removed speed fluctuations resulting from
the hand-cranked nature of the apparatus.
The researchers found other phonautograms that date even earlier,
but Scott had not yet perfected his device at that point, they said,
and the recordings produce only squawks.
The "Au Clair de la Lune" recording can be heard online at
thomas.maugh at latimes.com
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