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Earliest Sound Recordings – A Talk in the Library

Posted by UCSB Library on May 9, 2011

Humanity’s First Recordings of its Own Voice
David Giovannoni

Monday, May 16, 2011
4:00 PM
Davidson Library, Cheadle Room, 3rd Floor

In mid-nineteenth-century France, during the dawn of practical photography, amateur inventor Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville conceived of a machine that did with sound what the camera did with light. Between 1854 and 1860 he experimented with focusing airborne sounds of speech and music onto paper, thereby capturing what had theretofore been ephemeral. His phonautograph bore a striking resemblance to Edison’s phonograph of 20 years later. But his recordings, unlike Edison’s, were meant to be read by the eye, not heard by the ear.

For a century-and-a-half his experiments lay quietly in the venerable French archives in which he deposited them. Then in 2007 a few audio historians hypothesized there was a real possibility that modern technology could develop these experimental recordings like dormant photographic plates. Instead of exposing images, however, these would bear sounds – perhaps even humanity’s first recordings of its own voice!

In this presentation David Giovannoni recounts how he and his colleagues have identified dozens of these forgotten documents and coaxed several to talk and to sing. A principal in their discovery and recovery, Giovannoni is the first person since Scott de Martinville to personally examine every recording. He’ll explain how they were made and how they are played. He’ll discuss Scott de Martinville’s experiments, his reception in established scientific circles, and his early descent into an unmarked grave.


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