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The Oldest Playable Phonautogram. Ever.



The New York Times has a new article about the newly recovered, mid-nineteenth century recordings of Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville, a Parisian “tinkerer” who invented a recording device called the Phonautogram YEARS before Edison (that bad bastard) ever even thought about recording.  This phonautogram of “Au Claire de la Lune,” which dates to 1860, is now considered the earliest playable recording in existence:

Scott’s technology – and the technology used to recover it – are amazing.  A really worthwhile read.

ps. the article mentions Jonathan Sterne’s The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction.  It’s a fabulous book and I wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone who wants insight into the history of sound recording and a better understanding of how technology changed the way people listened to the world.  It’s all about the ensoniment, folks!

pps.  the article also mentions Archeophone, an amazing company that preserves, remasters and reissues recordings of the acoustic era of the recording industry.  All of their releases are worth having.  (My favorite is the Billy Murray album, but the Bert Williams releases are mind blowing too.  If you’re into popular music history, this stuff is de rigueur).


  1. Tony Rainer

    What a ghostly sound from the remote past! I wonder what other recordings done by the same process may have survived? Until now my earliest recordings, transferred to LP and CD, have been from 1889. Fascinating.

    Tony Rainer
    Melbourne, Australia
    29 March 2008

  2. arcmusic

    Rainer, as in style and practice in 19th century Italian opera Rainer? Were you doing your own transfers?

    • Tony Rainer

      2 Nov 2010

      Yes, I use recordings from 1889 onwards (in the case of cylinders, especially non-commercial ones) transferred to LP or CD), including original 78s and LP/CD transfers, for my research (with the assistance also of literary evidence from singing manuals, biographies, critical reviews etc) into 19th century performance practice in Italian opera and Mozart. I assisted Dr Graham Pont, then of the University of NSW, with some record assistance for one of his public musicological lectures in the mid-1960s in Sydney, and gave my first lecture-demonstration in 1967 at Sydney University using these resources from my private collection at a weekend mini-conference (with live concert) organised by Pont on improvisation and the part played by florid music in various cultures.
      In the following decades I gave different lecture-demonstrations using similar resources for the Musicological Society of Australia in Melbourne and Canberra (the latter for an international conference on 18th century studies), and one in Sydney in the 1990s on the Mapleson cylinders
      for the Australasian Association of Sound Archivists. In the 1970s I critically reviewed the first edition of John Steane’s book “The Grand Tradition” for the fifth issue of the Australian journal “Musicology”.

      I continue with my research and hope to publish an article soon.

      Tony Rainer
      (freelance editor and researcher)

  3. Shawn Borri

    I find it facinating that something recorded in the 1860s can be played back now. I had perdicted this on my website, and my prediction is still there. I mentioned the Phonautograph, and that it might be possible to log it into the computer and play it back. This comment had been on my webpage for at least 3 years maybe more.

  4. Shawn Borri

    I experiment with the acoustic recording heads, but do not have the time to repair others. The cutters are in a very limited supply too, good ones are cupped center 40 thousanths rods of sapphire. A friend of mine had a run of 100 and they were the only good cutter that I know of. I tried the chisel shaped Expert Pickup ones, and they did not do well. I only sell the blanks at this time, and only what I make. I have tried it where the customer orders what they want, and I either get swamped with lots of orders.