The phonautograph was the earliest known invention of a sound inscription device. It was invented by Frenchman Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville and patented on March 25, 1857. It could transcribe sound to a visible medium, but had no means to play back the sound after it was recorded. The transcriptions, known as "phonautograms", were first successfully played back using computer technology in 2008.

The device consisted of a horn or barrel that focused sound waves onto a membrane to which a hog's bristle was attached, causing the bristle to move and enabling it to inscribe the sound onto a visual medium. Initially, the phonautograph made recordings onto a lamp-blackened glass plate. A later version (see image) used a medium of lamp-blackened paper on a drum or cylinder. Another version would draw a line representing the sound wave on a roll of paper. The phonautograph was a laboratory curiosity for the study of acoustics. It was used to determine the frequency of a given musical pitch and to study sound and speech; it was not understood at that time that the waveform recorded by the phonautograph was in fact a recording of the sound wave that needed only a playback mechanism to reproduce that sound.

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In 2008, phonautograph recordings were for the first time played back as sound by American audio historians. [ [] ] cite news|url=|title=Researchers Play Tune Recorded Before Edison|author=Jody Rosen|date=March 27, 2008|publisher=New York Times] The team accessed Leon Scott's phonautograph papers which were stored in France's patent office and the Académie des Sciences. They then optically scanned the etched paper recordings into a computer program developed a few years earlier for the Library of Congress. The sound waves on the paper were then translated by the computer into audible sounds. One recording, created on April 9 1860 was revealed to be a 10-second recording (low fidelity but just recognizable) of a singer performing the French folk song "Au Clair de la Lune". This "phonautogram" is the earliest known recording of a human voice to be played back. predating Frank Lambert's 1878 recording of a talking clock by nearly two decades and the Edison Company's 1888 phonographic recording of a Handel concert by nearly three decades.

Since the above recording was recovered, the same team have succeeded in recovering a 1859 recording of a 435 Hz tuning fork, (at that time the French standard concert pitch, now internationally 440 Hz), possibly made to test the machine's ability. This latter recording is thus the oldest known recording of a recognizable sound to be played back. An even earlier 1857 recording yielded a sound that may have been a snatch of a human voice, but it is too short to identify it positively.


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  • Phonautograph — (griech.), Vorrichtung zum Aufzeichnen von Schwingungen. Um die Schwingungen einer Stimmgabel graphisch darzustellen, versieht man eine ihrer Zinken mit einer Spitzer (Fig. 1) aus dünnem Messingblech und führt diese Spitze, während die Stimmgabel …   Meyers Großes Konversations-Lexikon

  • Phonautograph — Pho*nau to*graph, n. [Phono + Gr. ? self + graph.] (Physics) An instrument by means of which a sound can be made to produce a visible trace or record of itself. It consists essentially of a resonant vessel, usually of paraboloidal form, closed at …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • Phonautograph — Phonautograph, ein zum Aufzeichnen von Schallwellen dienender Apparat. Ein parabolischer Schalltrichter aus Metallblech, vor dessen weiter Oeffnung die Töne erzeugt werden, konzentriert die Wellen gegen eine über die engere Bodenöffnung gespannte …   Lexikon der gesamten Technik

  • Phonautograph — Phonautogrāph (grch.), Vibrograph, Vorrichtung zum Aufzeichnen der Schwingungen tönender Körper durch Vermittlung der freien Luft; die erhaltenen Schallkurven heißen Phonautogramme oder Vibrogramme [Tafel: Schall II, 3] …   Kleines Konversations-Lexikon

  • Phonautograph — Ein Phonautograph (Neologismus aus altgriechisch φωνή phoné „Ton“, αὐτός autós „selbst“ und γράφειν gráphein „schreiben“; wörtlich also Tonselbstschreiber)[1] ist eine Vorrichtung zur grafischen Aufzeichnung von Schall …   Deutsch Wikipedia

  • phonautograph — noun One of the first phonographic recording devices, consisting of a horn or barrel focusing sound waves onto a membrane to which a hogs bristle was attached, causing the bristle to move so enabling it to inscribe a visual medium, which could… …   Wiktionary

  • phonautograph — instrument for recording sound vibrations Scientific Instruments …   Phrontistery dictionary

  • phonautograph — n. instrument used to visually record sounds by measuring sound vibrations …   English contemporary dictionary

  • phonautograph — phon·au·to·graph …   English syllables

  • phonautograph — /fəˈnɔtəgræf/ (say fuh nawtuhgraf), / graf/ (say grahf) noun an early mechanical apparatus for recording soundwaves, consisting of a horn for collecting the sound energy which operates on a diaphragm attached to which is a needle arranged so that …   Australian English dictionary

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