Earliest Known Voice Recording Discovered in France

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"There were squiggles on paper, but it was not recording sound."

So Giovannoni, who collaborates with many other audio historians, including scientists at Berkeley, asked the French Academy of Sciences to send digital scans of more of Scott's papers. Those scans arrived on March 1.

"When I opened up the file, I nearly fell off my chair," Giovannoni said.

"We had beautifully recorded and preserved phonautograms, many of which had dates on them."

While Giovannoni was excited by the images, they still needed to be translated into sound.

Creating sound from lines scrawled on sooty paper was a job for Berkeley lab scientists Carl Haber and Earl Cornell. Haber and Cornell had previously created sound from phonautograms that Edison had created in 1878 of trains.

The scientists used optical imaging and a "virtual stylus" to read Scott's sooty paper.

They immediately got sound, but because the phonautograph was hand-cranked its speed varied, thereby changing the recording's pitch.

"If someone's singing at middle C and the crank speeds up and slows down, the waves change shape and are shifting," said Cornell.

"We had a tuning fork side by side with the recording, so you can correct the sound and speed variations."

On March 3, Haber and Cornell sent audio back to Giovannoni, and another engineer further fine-tuned the recording to bring the voice out more from the static.

"When I first heard the recording as you hear it … it was magical, so ethereal," said Giovannoni.

"The fact is it's recorded in smoke. The voice is coming out from behind this screen of aural smoke."

Scott never intended for anyone to listen to his phonautograms, but the result of this work will be played in public on Friday at the annual conference of the Association for Recorded Sound Collections at Stanford University.

Copyright 2008 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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