The phonautograph, patented by Léon Scott in 1857, used a vibrating diaphragm and stylus to graphically record sound waves as tracings on sheets of paper, purely for visual analysis and without any idea of playing them back. These tracings can now be scanned and digitally converted into audible sound. Phonautograms of singing and speech made by Scott in 1860 were played back as sound for the first time in 2008. Along with a tuning fork tone and unintelligible snippets recorded as early as 1857, these are the earliest known recordings of sound.

Despite the similarity of name, there is no documentary evidence that Edison’s phonograph was based on Scott’s phonautograph.

The Invention of Sound

In 1877, Thomas Edison invented the phonograph. Unlike the phonautograph, it was capable of both recording and reproducing sound. Despite the similarity of name, there is no documentary evidence that Edison’s phonograph was based on Scott’s phonautograph. Edison first tried recording sound on a wax-impregnated paper tape, with the idea of creating a “telephone repeater” analogous to the “telegraph repeater” he had been working on.

Tinfoil Phonograph

Although the visible results made him confident that sound could be physically recorded and reproduced, his notes do not indicate that he actually reproduced sound before his first experiment using tinfoil as a recording medium several months later. The tinfoil was wrapped around a grooved metal cylinder and a sound-vibrated stylus indented the tinfoil while the cylinder was rotated. The recording could be played back immediately. The Scientific American article that introduced the tinfoil phonograph to the public mentioned Marey, Rosapelly and Barlow as well as Scott as creators of devices for recording but, importantly, not reproducing sound. Edison also invented variations of the phonograph that used tape and disc formats.

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  1. I took this picture on my honeymoon in Vancouver, November 2013. Vancouver was awesome. You should go if you’ve never been!

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About Mike McAlister

I take photos, collect vinyl records and drink really good coffee. Creating awesome things at Array.

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