In a little over 100 years, we've gone from using wax-covered cylinders to record seconds of audio, to carrying thousands of hours of music in a solid state inside our telephones. And yet some of the weirdest recordings come from the earliest days of the technology. Let's take a look at some of the strange tales and bizarre sounds from the first attempts to record audio. You'll learn at least one thing: old recordings are a bit creepy.
Recording by the Light of the Moon
Frenchman Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville's phonautograph was the first device created to record audio. There was one problem though – the audio couldn't be played back until a couple of years ago. The design mimicked that of the human ear in both style and operation – a funnel with a sheet of parchment stretched over the tapered end in lieu of the ear canal and drum, with a stylus that moved over the parchment to simulate the operation of the ossicles.
The phonautograph was designed to generate two dimensional tracings of sound so that Scott could further study acoustics, particularly the frequency and amplitude of sound waves. These phonoautograms were made as a stylus moved over paper covered in soot. The phonoautograms were delicate and never intended to be replayed, but in 2008 a group at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory analyzed the tracings and created digital audio from them. The first recording these researchers made was reproduced from one of Scott's phonoautograms, created on April 9th, 1860. It sounds like a young girl, hauntingly singing "Au Clair de la Lune" (translated as "Light of the Moon"). Who was the girl? The researchers later determined that the restoration was replayed at an incorrect rate, causing Scott's voice to sound like that of a young girl. The first version of the audio can be heard above.
Talking clocks and creepy dolls
Scott's recording beat out Frank Lambert, the inventor of the typewriter, and his Experimental Talking Clock as the first human audio recording. Thomas Edison's phonograph followed a few years later, allowing for playback of recordings. Edison, never missing out on an opportunity to commercialize an invention, created a line of talking dolls that sang snippets of "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star", making this the first known commercial recording.
Play it again (and again, and again), Sam
In the early years of commercial audio recordings, performers had to repeat a segment of a desired song or speech each time a copy was made. Eventually, a series of tubes would be attached to other gramophones, allowing for multiple copies to be made simultaneously (with this technology later improved to allow for upwards of 100 copies to be created at once). George Washington Johnson, one of the early commercial music stars, had to repeat his hit, "The Laughing Song", fifty times a day in a recording studio for years to produce enough retail recordings, even after amplification processes were invented. One the upside, every recording was a live version - George Washington Johnson was the Pearl Jam of the early 20th Century.
Unusual Early Recordings
It is rumored that Scott traveled to the United States and recorded the voice of Abraham Lincoln, either during a private meeting or reciting the entire Gettysburg Address, but these rumors are so far unsubstantiated.
One of the more interesting early pieces of audio is that of opera singer Alessandro Moreschi performing as a soprano. Alessandro was castrated at a young age, and this is therefore a recording of one of the last castrati opera singers. After the Catholic Church banned the practice, Moreschi was cared for by Pope Leo XIII and the directors of the Sistine Chapel Choir. In the choir, he was known as the "Angel of Rome", holding the position of First Soprano for over thirty years, singing until his retirement at the age of 55. A recording of Moreschi singing "Crucifixus" was made in a 1902 session. The audio from this session greatly surpasses that of earlier recordings, as the technology made leaps and bounds in a short amount of time.
Edison's odd commercial
One of Edison's better commercial recordings comes in the form of an advertising recording for the "Edison Phonograph", a bizarre attempt to humanize the technology. To quote the recording:
It gives pleasure to all . . . [and] allows you to always hear the voices of loved ones, even though they are far away.
The image of Edison's doll is courtesy of the collection of Rene Rondea.