Sound Recording: The Beginning

Experiments to record sound started during the 1800s, when American inventor Thomas Edison began working on the phonograph and French inventor Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville developed the phonautograph.

While many people associate Edison with being the first person to record sound, historians say this honour goes to de Martinville. His first known recording of a human voice was recorded on 9th April 1860, pre-dating Edison’s phonograph by 17 years.


Earliest recording

Born in Paris on 25th April 1817, de Martinville was a printer by trade. However, he began experimenting in recording sounds in 1853, after he became fascinated with creating a mechanical recording device.

The rather eerie 10-second clip of a person singing Au Clair de la Lune (a French folk song) was unearthed in March 2008, when it was played again for the first time since the 1860s. It was recorded by de Martinville on a phonautograph that he had invented.

In order to collect sounds, the machine used a horn attached to a diaphragm. This vibrated when a sound was detected and an attached stiff bristle inscribed an image of the soundwaves on a hand-cranked cylinder, coated in lamp-black.

Assisted by acoustic instrument maker, Rudolph Koenig, he built a number of devices. The phonautograph was later used for scientific investigations of sound waves – it was designed to record sound, but not to play it back.

In 2008, a phonautogram recorded on 9th April 1860 was recovered from an archive in Paris, where it had been deposited by de Martinville. It remained undiscovered for almost 150 years.

Scientists at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California converted the recording (which appeared like “squiggles” on paper) into a modern, playable, digital audio file. Although it sounds distorted and high-pitched due to the primitive method, the voice on the recording is believed to belong to de Martinville.

Edison’s phonograph

Thomas Edison invented his famous phonograph in 1877. Born on 11th February 1847, he was a prolific inventor and registered 1,093 US patents, including a mechanical vote recorder, an electric car battery and electrical power, born out of his early career as a telegraph operator.

The story of sound recording truly began with his invention. The phonograph consisted of a cylindrical drum with tinfoil wrapped around it. When the drum was turned by a manual handle, it rotated and moved laterally, passing under a metal stylus attached to a diaphragm.

A small mouthpiece into which a person could speak was on the other side of the diaphragm. The soundwaves caused the diaphragm to vibrate and this made the stylus vary the pressure on the tinfoil. This embossed a pattern on the tinfoil as the drum rotated, consisting of the undulations of the pressure patterns of the soundwaves.

The phonograph played it back by positioning the stylus at the beginning of the groove and winding on the cylinder again. The stylus moved in and out of the undulations in the foil, causing the diaphragm to vibrate and thus moving the air in the mouthpiece to recreate the sound.


Use of wax

Other inventors took up the challenge of recording sounds, including Alexander Graham Bell (who invented the telephone) and Charles Tainter, an American scientific instrument maker who worked with Bell.

They believed Edison’s phonograph was impractical, as the results weren’t good and the recordings would wear out very quickly. They developed a wax cylinder phonograph, in which a removable cylinder made of hard wax replaced the tinfoil-covered drum.

They also modified the mechanism so the recorder moved across the rotating cylinder and made improvements to the recording and reproducing heads. Their modifications meant the recorded sounds were more easily recognisable.


Gramophone record

German-born inventor, Emil Berliner, began developing an alternative to the phonograph between 1887 and 1893. The gramophone was capable of cheap mass production and was easier to playback than the phonograph.

The recording medium was a disc instead of a cylinder and the stylus moved across the disc. Recordings were made by attaching the stylus to a vibrating diaphragm and causing it to cut a groove in the lateral plane, rather than vertically. The disc was made of metal and the track was recorded in a thin coating of lamp-black.

The disc was placed in an acid bath when the recording was finished. This etched a groove in the metal where it had been exposed by the recording stylus. Unlike the individual recordings required with the wax cylinder process, gramophone discs were capable of mass production and identical copies could be produced in a steam-heated press.

20th century sound recording

The gramophone was the forerunner to vinyl records, which were mass produced throughout the 20th century. In 1931, RCA introduced the first vinyl records and within 10 years, this had become the most popular format for recorded music.

In the late 20th century, other means of recording and listening to music were invented, such as cassette tapes in 1962 by Phillips and compact discs in 1982 by American inventor James Russell. The first commercial CD, launched on 17th August 1982, was a recording of Claudio Arrau’s Chopin waltzes.

Compact discs became extremely popular thanks to them being small and durable. In fact, adverts of the day promoting the benefits of CDs over vinyl claimed you could spill jam on a CD and it would still be playable!

With the growth of the digital era, records and CDs are becoming a thing of the past, as many people prefer downloading music online and listening on portable devices. In recent years, however, vinyl has been making a comeback and retro-style record-players have appeared on the market again.

Without the early sound pioneers, such as de Martinville and Edison, today’s high-quality sound recording techniques may never have happened. We take sound recordings for granted and rarely stop to think how important the process is in modern life.


Sound Planning

Sound Planning provides acoustic solutions for many industries. Designing and installing noise control products and equipment, we are also fully qualified to prepare acoustic reports for local authorities in cases of potential noise nuisance.

Without the benefits of modern sound recording technology, which has developed over the decades since the early inventions of the 19th century, our work wouldn’t be possible.

Please contact us for more information on our products and services.


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