First sound recording First stereo sound recording

First sound recording

1. The technology

2. The human subject

First recording of the human voice

'Au Clair de la Lune', 1860

Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville (1817–1879) recorded this on 9 April 1860, and deposited the results with the Académie des Sciences in 1861. The recording contains the first line of the second verse of this familiar song—"Au clair de la lune, mon ami Pierrot, prête moi—" —and is the earliest audibly recognizable record of the human voice yet recovered. The singer was Scott himself. [First Sounds] A photographic facsimile of the original phonautogram appears on p. 76 of Feaster, and online. Although the recording sounds unnaturally slow, Feaster suggests that this was "probably in order to create a record that would be visually easy to parse—although this is also the speed at which the song would have been sung as a lullaby."

Earlier phonautograms by Scott survive, in which it is evident that the human voice was recorded—the earliest, 'Chant de la voix—changements de ton', dating from July 1857. However they lack timecodes, so it is impossible to speed-correct them, and the content is unintelligible. Feaster reproduces a photographic facsimile of the July 1857 phonautogram on p. 86, and the audio file for this too is included on the accompanying CD; the facsimile is also online.



First recording of the human voice that could be heard by contemporaries

The first sound recording, and the first of the human voice, that could be heard by contemporaries, was made by Thomas Edison (1847–1931). Although the chronology has frequently been presented in somewhat garbled form (often by Edison himself), the circumstances seem to have been established definitively in Randall Stross's 2007 biography of the inventor. Working late in the lab on 18 July 1877, comparing telephone diaphragms, Edison felt the vibrations as he spoke into one, and voiced his suggestion that, with a point on the diaphragm, it should be possible to make a recording while pulling something beneath it. With the assistance of John Kruesi and Charles Batchelor the experiment was rigged up there and then. Batchelor pulled a strip of wax paper through the device, while Edison spoke the standard phrase the lab used to test telephone diaphragms: "Mary had a little lamb." Playback was indistinct but audible, and by breakfast time the following morning they had achieved clear articulation from the waxed paper. The lab notebook for 18 July includes the brief entry:


Just tried experiment with a diaphragm having an embossing point & held against parafin paper moving rapidly the spkg vibrations are indented nicely & theres no doubt that I shall be able to store up & reproduce automatically at any future time the human voice perfectly

The entry written by Edison is also signed by Batchelor and James Adams, another assistant. It seems clear that Edison himself didn't immediately see the significance of what he had achieved, and it wasn't till 5 November 1877 that he set down on paper his conceptualisation of the tinfoil cylinder phonograph. The first actual working model was built by John Kruesi on 4 December 1877; the sentence "How do you get that?" is said to have been recorded and reproduced by that date.

The Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History holds three tinfoil recordings made by Thomas Edison. One is undated, but the other two date from 18 April 1878, when Edison demonstrated his recording machine to the National Academy of Sciences at a meeting held in the Smithsonian Institution Building, also known as the Smithsonian Castle. The exact content of the recordings is not known, however a report in the following day's Washington Star gives some idea. Edison had his assistant, Charles Batchelor, demonstrate the machine: "Into the mouthpiece of the instrument Mr. Edison's assistant sung and shouted and whistled and crowed, and in a few minutes the same sounds floated out upon the air faint but distinct." Then,


Just as the assistant was remarking in a bass voice to the phonograph on the subject of Uncle Ned that "he had gone wh—," the tin foil gave out and the line remained unfinished. One of the audience, not a member of the Academy, however, suggested that the line be completed by adding the words "where tin foil fuses."

[Stross; Washington Star; Morton 2000; email communications from the Smithsonian Institution, April 2011]

The Smithsonian recordings could presumably be reconstructed in the same way as was recently successfully undertaken with a tinfoil recording, made on 22 June 1878 in St Louis, Missouri, held by the Schenectady Museum, using non-contact scanning, to preserve the encoded sound and reproduce it in a digital format. Having made a three-dimensional scan of the entire surface of the tinfoil, software translated that virtual surface back into sound. The 78-second recording starts with a 23-second cornet solo, and is followed by a man—believed to be Thomas Mason, a St Louis political columnist—reciting 'Mary Had a Little Lamb' and 'Old Mother Hubbard'; an unidentified woman (but see below, for a contrary view on the speaker's sex) says the words "Old Mother Hubbard". It was played in public on 25 October 2012 for the first time since it was created. [Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Times Union, FoxNews, Huffington Post]

The earliest surviving sound recording (reproducible both at the time and currently) may be the lead cylinder recording for an experimental talking clock, 1878, made by Frank Lambert (1851–1937), but the evidence for its early date remains contentious. [Wichert, Cramer and Koenigsberg] The device and its recording are currently on display at the National Watch and Clock Museum in Columbia, Pennsylvania.



Earliest-surviving recording of the female voice

In the 22 June 1878 recording above, an unidentified voice recites 'Old Mother Hubbard'. The suggestion that the voice is a woman's is thought unlikely, and a misunderstanding of the frequency distortions caused by hand-cranking. [presentation]

The Handel choir, in the 1888 recording of Israel in Egypt, included 782 sopranos and 779 altos. [The 1888 Crystal Palace Recordings]

The earliest surviving recording of an individual woman's voice is the newly-recovered 12-second recitation of the first verse of 'Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star', made in November 1888 for one of Edison's talking dolls; the identity of the woman is unknown. This is also the earliest surviving recording made for commercial purposes. The tin phonograph cylinder is held by the Thomas Edison National Historical Park. [NPS 1; NPS 2; ScienceNow; Hester]



Earliest-born person whose voice was recorded

The Morning Call, of San Francisco, reported the following on 19 September 1891:



Though Dead, It Rings Out Clear and

Distinct Through a Phonograph.

A Cleveland (O.) Leader reporter has had the unusual, not to say wierd [sic], experience of hearing the voice of a man long since dead. The voice was that of Horatio Perry, a centenarian who passed away over a year ago, and it was reproduced perfectly through the agency of a phonograph. In January, 1890, Arthur Smith of this city visited Wellington, the home of Mr. Perry, taking a phonograph with him. It was suggested that the venerable gentleman talk into the instrument, and Mr. Smith readily assented. Mr. Perry was requested to relate an incident of his early life, and this is what he said into the mouthpiece of the phonograph: "I was born in 1790, and came to Cleveland in 1800. There was but one frame house in the village and my father purchased it. There was no road west of the Cuyahoga River and nothing there save woods— 'All the days of my life approach the end, and I wait until my change comes.'"

The last sentence is a Scriptural quotation that Mr. Perry greatly admired. Mr. Smith brought the cylinder used for Mr. Perry's voice to this city and locked it in his safe, where it has remained. Mr. Perry died not long after he spoke into the phonograph, and Mr. Smith professed to have a horror of hearing a dead man's voice, and he refrained from placing the cylinder in a phonograph until requested to do so by the reporter, who knew Mr. Perry. The voice was as natural as in life, and the pronunciation was clear.

The wax cylinder recording, made by the Ohio Phonograph Company of Cleveland, has since been lost. [The Birth of the Recording Industry]

There doesn't seem to be a contemporary record of the birth of Horatio Perry, but his marriage in 1813 is to be found in the records of Cuyahoga County, Ohio, and he appears, aged 60, in the 1850 US federal census of Elyria, Lorain, Ohio. He died on 17 February 1891, and was buried at Elyria.


Helmuth Karl Bernhard, Graf von Moltke (1800–1891)

The voice of Field Marshal von Moltke, b. 26 October 1800, was recorded on a brown wax cylinder by Theo Wangemann—employed by Thomas Edison as in effect "the world's first professional sound recordist"—on 21 October 1889, at Kreisau, Prussia.

Two recordings of von Moltke were first identified and digitized in 2011, at the Thomas Edison National Historic Park. Both recordings bear the same date, so the recording presented here is the one bearing the earlier of the sequential reference numbers, EDIS 93950. [NPS]



Earliest-born woman whose voice was recorded

According to Welch & Burt (1975), among the individuals recorded in England by George Gouraud was "actress Mrs. Stirling"; this must be Mary Anne (Fanny) Stirling (1815–1895), who had recently played Martha in Irving's 1885 production of Faust. It seems unlikely that the recording survives; the British Library Sound Archive doesn't have a copy.

A recording exists that has been attributed to Queen Victoria (1819–1901). Held by the Science Museum in London, very little of it is intelligible. On the basis of auditory information, the probability that this is a correct attribution is only 35%, though on the basis of documentary evidence of provenance it's put at 85%. Queen Victoria did make a sound recording on a separate occasion—on 8 August 1898 she recorded a message on a cylinder for Emperor Menelik of Abyssinia; but by her request it was broken into pieces after he had it played back. [British Library Sound Archive Catalogue, Tritton, A Regal Recording, Summers]

A strong contender may be Florence Nightingale (1820–1910), here recorded in 1890, in aid of the Light Brigade Relief Fund.



Earliest-born human whose heart-beat was recorded

In 1854 the German physiologist Karl von Vierordt first employed an instrument of his own invention, the sphygmograph, to record a graphic trace of the human pulse. The sphygmograph worked by pressing a weighted plate against an artery, connecting it to a stylus made by a single hair, and tracing the pulsations on a moving strip of paper blackened by soot from an oil lamp.

In 2014 Patrick Feaster and artist Dario Robleto discovered a photographic chart created in 1869 by a French physician, Charles Ozanam, depicting the pulse of a 100-year-old Frenchman, one Monsieur Léger, a few months before his death. Feaster successfully processed the graphic image to reconstruct the actual sound of Léger's heartbeat, so that it's now possible to listen to the beating heart of someone born in 1769. For more detail, with the audio of the pulse, see Cowen.



Full references for printed works

Patrick Feaster (2012) Pictures of Sound. One Thousand Years of Educed Audio: 980–1980. Atlanta, Georgia: Dust to Digital. Book with included audio CD.

Harry M. Geduld (1975) The Birth of the Talkies. From Edison to Jolson. Bloomington & London: Indiana University Press

David L. Morton jr (2000) Off the Record. The Technology and Culture of Sound Recording in America

David L. Morton jr (2004) Sound Recording. The Life Story of a Technology

Jonathan Scott (2023) Into the Groove. The Story of Sound from Tin Foil to Vinyl. London: Bloomsbury Sigma

Randall Stross (2007) The Wizard of Menlo Park. How Thomas Alva Edison Invented the Modern World. New York: Three Rivers Press

Paul Tritton (1991) The Lost Voice of Queen Victoria. The Search for the First Royal Recording. London: Academy

Walter L. Welch & Leah Brodbeck Stenzel Burt (1994) From Tinfoil to Stereo. The Acoustic Years of the Recording Industry 1877–1929. Gainsville, FL: University Press of Florida


© 2010–2023 Benjamin S. Beck

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This page was last revised on 2019-05-25.