The First Replayable Sound Recording

Although best remembered as the inventor of the electric light bulb, in December 1877, Thomas Edison revealed the first sound recording that could be played back, making his mark on history of sound recording.

He wasn’t actually the first person to ever record sound, however. That was accomplished in Paris by Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville in the late 1850s, nearly two decades before Edison’s phonograph.

While Scott was the first to record sound, he didn’t think people would ever actually hear the recordings he made. Instead, he thought they would be interpretated. Scott created the phonautograph – a vibrating membrane attached to a thin stylus that would trace the way the membrane moved, capturing a wavy trail on a sheet of paper or glass plate covered in a fine later of soot. The idea would be for a trained reader to interpret those lines to know what the sound was, however, this turned out to be much harder than anticipated. Even today with audio-editing software, it’s still not really something people can do.

This means the first recorded sound was from Scott himself, however without playback equipment it essentially meant there wasn’t any proof that his invention worked. Modern researchers have managed to listen to the recordings – the most notable a snippet of the French folk song ‘Au Clair de la Lune’.

Nearly 20 years later, Thomas Edison’s ‘talking machine’ became the first that could record and playback sound successfully. He had created a telegraphic repeater which could automatically repeat a Morse code message, and in the Summer of 1877 Edison continued to develop his design and labelled his idea as a Phonograph. He considered various ways of recording, switched to a thin tin foil to capture the sound, and finally machinist John Kreusi turned his designs into a reality. Edison claimed the first thing recorded and played back was his rendition of ‘Mary Had A Little Lamb’.

On December 7th, the day after Kreusi finished the Phonograph, Edison went to Scientific American’s New York office to show it off. The magazine wrote about the visit stating Edison “placed a little machine on our desk, turned a crank, and the machine inquired as to our health, asked how we liked the phonograph, informed us that it was very well, and bid us a cordial good night. These remarks were not only perfectly audible to ourselves, but to dozens or more persons gathered around, and they were produced by the aid of no other mechanism than the simple little contrivance.”