Nearly two decades have passed, and Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville’s experiments with recording sound have so far not resulted in anything replayable. On the other side of the Atlantic, however, development are taking place which will eventually turn these ideas into commercial recordings. On on November 21st, 1877, Thomas Edison announced that he had invented a device which would be able to play back recorded telegraph messages. The next few years saw frantic experimentation with various media – single-use tinfoil sheets wrapped around cylinders (nearly all of which have unfortunately not survived) and discs of different materials, some of which have proved to be readable (if not particularly listenable) by the people at firstsounds.org.
The first sound you will be able to hear is the vibrations from the Metropolitan Elevated Railroad in Manhatten, the result of an experiment by Charles Batchelor to adapt a phonograph to trace waves on lamp-blacked paper so they could be examined visually. If you can make anything out of this aside from a spooky wind then you’ve done better than I have. Next we have the only substantial bit of tinfoil to be recovered, a brief musical performance of some sort, a recitation of “Mary Had A Little Lamb” (probably not by Edison), some laughter and indistinct speech sounds. Then there’s an oddity, an ambitious attempt to create a talking clock by French-American inventor Frank Lambert, the oldest sound recording replayable on its own device. You should be able to make out “twelve o’ clock, five o’clock” and a few other hours.
After these early experiments Edison moved his energies to developing the electric light, and the project was put on the backburner. The second half of this mix has some of the experimental Volta labs disc recordings of the early 1880s, all recorded by Charles Summer Tainter and Chichester Bell, two engineers employed by Alexander Graham Bell. The first of these is little more than a noise, the second a recitation of Hamlet’s soliloquy, the third a man repeatedly saying ‘barometer’. The glass plate recording after is slightly more interesting as it contains the following monologue;
It’s the eleventh day of March, eighteen hundred and eighty five. [Trilled R] How is this for high! Mary had a little lamb, and its fleece was […] as […], and everywhere that Mary went — oh, fuck.
The machine breaks, and the first recorded obscenity of history is etched into a glass disc. The final two Volta Labs recordings apparently contain dull descriptions of business, the target market for this invention being rich businessmen who wanted to save time in dictating notes.
I won’t spend a moment pretending that this mix is even halfway listenable, but it’s only four minutes long (too short for mixcloud) and it sets us up nicely for next time, when we’ll start to shift focus to things being recorded and not just artifacts of the process.
Most of the sounds here were recovered by the brilliant people here at firstsounds.org
A video of Edison operating his original tinfoil cylinder machine
In-depth research into Frank Lambert’s talking clock
An article on the birth of sound recording
1. Charles Batchelor – Metropolitan Elevated Railroad from 40 feet away
2. Thomas Edison – Schenectady Museum – 22 June 1878 in St Louis, Missouri
3. Frank Lambert – Recording for an experimental talking clock
4. Charls Sumner Tainter – Lateral Electroplated Disc
5. Unknown artist – Green wax disc – Hamlet’s Soliloquy
6. Volta lab – November 17 1884 “Barometer”
7. Tainter / Rogers – Photographic glass plate recording
8. Chichester Bell – Disc on Japan wax, April 1885
9. Chichester Bell – Wax disc, summer 1885