Music

Third Ear | Jeremy Eichler

Rehearing the history of sound, one ghostly transmission at a time 

Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville patented his “phonautograph” in 1857.
Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville patented his “phonautograph” in 1857.

The tone is muffled, the pitch wobbly, the words sound as if they’ve traveled a vast distance to reach our weary, modern ears. But through the surface noise that surrounds the music — quite literally, the noise of time — you hear it unmistakably: a man singing the French folksong “Au Clair de la Lune.” The sound is more than a ghostly transmission from the past. It is among the first known recordings of the human voice. The date is April 9, 1860.  

Wait: 1860? Cue the chorus of incredulity. We have all been taught that Thomas Edison ushered in the era of recorded sound when he invented the phonograph in 1877. But here is a recording made with technology invented some 20 years before Edison’s phonograph. And that, precisely, is the point.  

The man singing is likely the inventor himself, a French typographer named Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville, and if you’ve never heard of him you are not alone. Until quite recently Scott’s work was only mentioned, if at all, as a small footnote in histories of recorded sound. His renown, however, is slowly growing, thanks to the bicentennial celebration of his birth this year, along with the unflagging efforts of a collective of researchers — historians, scientists, and advocates — over the last decade. And with Scott’s emergence into the spotlight, the history of recording itself, you might say, is being autotuned. 

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Toward that end, the Scott bicentennial has occasioned a symposium at the Thomas Edison National Historic Park, a new tribute book, a special public session of the French Academy of Sciences, and an online exhibition. What’s more, in 2015, Scott’s recordings and manuscripts were inducted into UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register. 

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But beyond a story of an obscure inventor belatedly getting his due, Scott’s tale fascinates for how his own invention both succeeded and failed, for the window it opens onto the misty prehistory of modern technology, and for perhaps the deeper human tendencies it seems to embody: an impulse to push back against the radically ephemeral nature of experience, of time itself — as embodied in the radical ephemerality of sound.   

Édouard-Léon Scott was born in Paris in 1817, and he followed his father’s footsteps into the field of typography and rare books. By the 1850s he was working as an editor of scientific manuscripts when he came up with what he later described as “the imprudent idea of photographing the word.”

What he meant was the word as spoken or sung. Just as a camera registered an image of the visual world, he dreamed of a machine that might capture sound, allowing us to visualize the contours of speech or song and to preserve them for posterity. He went on to build just such a device and called it the “phonautograph.”

Modeled on the hearing mechanisms of the human ear, Scott’s invention featured an acoustic horn with an eardrum-like membrane at the end, and a stylus — in fact, the whisker of a boar — attached to the membrane. As sound traveled through the horn, the membrane vibrated and the stylus traced its vibrations on a glass plate that had been blackened with soot. It would be, as he put it, a microscope for sound. 

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As his early prototypes progressed, Scott filed for a patent in 1857 and spoke expansively about the promise of the new technology. “Gentlemen,” he told a gathering of industry experts in Paris, “we are in the presence of an invention being born — an entirely new graphic art springing from the heart of physics, of physiology, of mechanics. . . . I see the book of nature opened before the gaze of all men, and however small I may be, I dare hope to be permitted to read it.”  

The key word here is read. Rather astonishingly, Scott never conceived of the idea of actually playing back any of the recordings he made. He instead pictured a time when we would learn to decipher the “phonautograms” — long series of squiggles and waves produced by his machines — as easily as a stenographer appraises his own notes. This would be how sound could be preserved: read off of paper and played back in the mind.

As counterintuitive as the notion seems today, for Scott, it promised nothing less profound than what art would promise Proust: the recollection of lost time. “Can one hope,” Scott wrote, “that the day is near when the musical phrase escaping from the lips of the singer will come to write itself . . . on an obedient page and leave an imperishable trace of those fugitive melodies that the memory no longer recalls by the time it searches for them?”

One could hope, yes, but sadly not much more. The phonautograph did not catch on widely. There were business missteps. It was hard for Scott to convince the doubters that his invention actually worked. And no one learned to truly read his sonic visualizations. Before long, Edison’s phonograph arrived and blew away its first witnesses with the miracle of playback. Among the era’s chroniclers of sonic exploration, almost no one credited Scott for arriving — two decades earlier — on a nearby moon. He died in 1879 a bitter, broken man.

And there the story may have ended if not for the efforts of the First Sounds research collective, which in 2008 exhumed Scott’s phonautograms from the Parisian archives and, working at first with scientists at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, found a way to “play” sound off the images. From complete oblivion, the voice of a Frenchman emerged warbling the tune of “Au Claire de la Lune.” Scott’s invention had worked after all. And so the reappraisal began, and continues apace.

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In the end, what Scott saw as his invention’s greatest novelty — its making hearing subservient to vision — turned out to be its Achilles’ heel. And of course it’s no small irony that it’s the very notion of playback, lacking in his original machine, that has now granted Scott a small measure of posthumous glory.  

Rather astonishingly, Scott never conceived of the idea of actually playing back any of the recordings he made.

Tellingly, the broader impulse to recover or preserve ephemeral sounds — to bottle them in a pipe, or even in one case, to capture them in a sponge that could be squeezed for playback at a later date — was a fantasy that ran deep in the European cultural imagination. In the 16th century, Rabelais conjured the magical image of a sea of frozen words that begins to thaw in spring, releasing previously frozen sounds of a great battle that had transpired in the winter. Guglielmo Marconi, a pioneer of early radio, imagined that perhaps no sound was ever really lost, and with the most sensitive equipment, we might still tune in noises from earlier in history, all the way back to Christ’s Sermon on the Mount. 

Scott’s invention did undoubtedly carry us forward toward these venerable dreams. And the proliferation of sound editing tools, bundles of which come standard today with many home computers, shows Scott was not wrong: We do crave the sensation of seeing sound, controlling it, shaping it with our hands. It’s just that we also kind of like to hear it too.  

Happily, with Scott’s own recordings, we can now finally do just that. And his experimental work from the 1860s continues to exert a curious fascination — like a core sample of the early modern world. Listening closely, between the distant notes, one hears a mixture of utopian hope, confidence, and pristine unknowing. The sound reaches us today, as Roland Barthes once wrote of an old photograph, “like the delayed rays of a star.” 

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at jeichler@globe.com or follow him on Twitter @Jeremy_Eichler