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Earliest Human Voice Recording Debuts Online

This weekend, Stanford University hosted the first public performance of the earliest known human voice recording--one that predates Thomas Edison's invention of the phonograph by 17 years. The organization that made playback of the sound possible, First Sounds, has also posted the recording online for the public.

The recording, or "phonautogram," was made April 9, 1860 by French inventor Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville on a device he dubbed the "phonautograph," which recorded sound by scratching a piece of paper that had been blackened by the smoke of an oil lamp. It features a girl--possibly the inventor's daughter--singing about 10 seconds of the French folk song "Au clair de la lune, Pierrot répondit."

The trouble was that while Scott was able to record sounds, he never came up with a device for playing them back. Hence First Sounds launched an initiative to do just that. First Sounds is a collaborative of individuals and organizations that work to preserve recorded sound. Founders include Patrick Feaster of Indiana University, David Giovannoni, Richard Martin, and Meagan Hennessey.

The technology to play back the recording was developed at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and involved scanning the grooves of the recordings onto a computer, then playing back the audio using a "virtual stylus."

Other recordings from the phonautograph also exist, including one supposedly of a human voice from 1857, but the organization has not yet been able to decode it in a format that makes the recording audibly recognizable.

More information about the "Au clair" recording and additional phonautograph recording samples can be found at First Sounds' site in MP3 format here.

About the Author

David Nagel is editorial director of 1105 Media's Education Technology Group and editor-in-chief of THE Journal and STEAM Universe. A 29-year publishing veteran, Nagel has led or contributed to dozens of technology, art and business publications.

He can be reached at [email protected]. You can also connect with him on LinkedIn at or follow him on Twitter at @THEDavidNagel (K-12) or @CampusTechDave (higher education).

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