Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville (April 25, 1817 – April 26, 1879) was a French printer and bookseller who lived in Paris.
He invented the earliest known sound recording device, the phonautograph, which was patented in France on March 25, 1857.
As a printer by trade, he was able to read accounts of the latest scientific discoveries and became an inventor. Scott de Martinville was interested in recording the sound of human speech in a way similar to that achieved by the then new technology of photography for light and image. He hoped for a form of stenography that could record the whole of a conversation without any omissions. His earliest interest was in an improved form of stenography and he was the author of several papers on shorthand and a history of the subject (1849).
From 1854 he became fascinated in a mechanical means of transcribing vocal sounds. While proofreading some engravings for a physics textbook he came across drawings of auditory anatomy. He sought to mimic the working in a mechanical device, substituting an elastic membrane for the tympanum, a series of levers for the ossicle, which moved a stylus he proposed would press on a paper, wood or glass surface covered in lampblack. On January 26, 1857, he delivered his design in a sealed envelope to the French Academy. On March 25, 1857, he received French patent #17,897/31,470 for the phonautograph.
The phonautograph used a horn to collect sound, attached to a diaphragm which vibrated a stiff bristle which inscribed an image on a lamp black coated, hand-cranked cylinder. Scott built several devices with the help of acoustic instrument maker Rudolph Koenig. Unlike Edison’s later invention of 1877, the phonograph, the phonautograph only created visual images of the sound and did not have the ability to play back its recordings. Scott de Martinville’s device was used only for scientific investigations of sound waves.
In 2008, The New York Times reported the playback of a phonautogram recorded on April 9, 1860. The recording was converted from squiggles on paper to a playable digital audio file by scientists at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, California. The phonautogram was one of several deposited by Leon Scott in two archives in Paris and only recently brought to light.
The recording, of part of the French folk song Au clair de la lune, was initially played at a speed that produced a reasonable musical tempo, and on that basis it was unveiled as a 10-second recording of the voice of a woman or child. It was later decided that the playback speed had been too fast, and that it was actually a 20-second recording of a man, probably Scott himself, singing the song very slowly. It is now the earliest known recording of singing in existence, predating, by 28 years, several 1888 Edison wax cylinder phonograph recordings of a massed chorus performing Handel’s oratorio Israel in Egypt.
A phonautogram by Scott containing the opening lines of Torquato Tasso’s pastoral drama Aminta, in Italian, has also been found. Recorded around 1860, probably after the recording of Au clair de la lune, this phonautogram is now the earliest known recording of intelligible human speech. Recordings of Scott’s voice made in 1857 have also survived, but they are only unintelligible snippets.
It is said that in 1863 a recording was made of Abraham Lincoln’s voice at the White House, using Scott’s phonautograph.A phonautographic tracing of Lincoln’s voice was supposedly included among the artifacts kept by Edison. According to FirstSounds.org, Scott did not travel to the U.S. in the 1860s.
Scott’s phonautograms were selected by the Library of Congress as a 2010 addition to the National Recording Registry, which selects recordings annually that are “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.