Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville

Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville (25 April 181726 April 1879) was a French printer and bookseller who lived in Paris. He invented the earliest known sound recording device, the phonautograph, which was patented on March 25, 1857, as French patent #17,897/31,470.

Early years

As a printer by trade, he was able to read accounts of the latest scientific discoveries and became an inventor. Scott de Martinville was interested in recording the sound of human speech in a way similar to that achieved by the then new technology of photography for light and image. He hoped for a form of stenography that could record the whole of a conversation without any omissions. His earliest interest was in an improved form of stenography and he was the author of several papers on shorthand and a history of the subject (1849).


From 1854 he became fascinated in a mechanical means of transcribing vocal sounds. While proofreading some engravings for a physics textbook he came across drawings of auditory anatomy. He sought to mimic the working in a mechanical device, substituting an elastic membrane for the tympanum, a series of levers for the ossicle, which moved a stylus he proposed would press on a paper, wood or glass surface covered in lampblack. On 26 January, 1857 he delivered his design in a sealed envelope to the French Academy. On March 25, 1857, he received French patent #17,897/31,470 for the phonautograph.

The phonautograph used a horn to collect sound, attached to a diaphragm which vibrated a stiff bristle which inscribed an image on a lamp black coated, hand-cranked cylinder. Scott built several devices with the help of acoustic instrument maker Rudolph Koenig. Unlike Edison's similar 1877 invention, the phonograph, the phonautograph only created visual images of the sound and did not have the ability to play back its recordings. Scott de Martinville's device was used only for scientific investigations of sound waves.

Scott de Martinville managed to sell several phonoautographes to scientific laboratories for use in the investigation of sound. It proved useful in the study of vowel sounds and was used by Franciscus Donders, Heinrich Schneebeli and Rene Marage. It also initiated further research into tools able to image sound such as Koenig's manometric flame. He was not, however, able to profit from his invention and spent the remainder of his life as a librarian and bookseller at 9 Rue Vivienne in Paris.

Scott de Martinville also became interested in the relationship between linguistics, people's names and their character and published a paper on the subject (1857).

Rediscovery of the Au Clair de la Lune recording

In 2008, the New York Times reported the discovery of a phonautogram from April 9 1860. The announcement of the discovery was accompanied by an announcement that the visual recording was made playable — "converted from squiggles on paper to sound — by scientists at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, California." The phonautogram was one of Leon Scott's forgotten images in Paris; they were scanned then processed by a sophisticated computer program developed a few years earlier by the Library of Congress.

The recording was a ten-second snippet of a singer, probably a daughter of the inventor performing the French folk song "Au Clair de la Lune". This phonautograph recording is now the earliest known recording of a human voice and the earliest known recording of music in existence, predating, by twenty-eight years, the longest surviving Edison phonographic recording of a Handel chorus, made in 1888 .

Of further interest is an alleged recording of Abraham Lincoln's voice supposedly made in Washington D.C. in 1863 using Scott's Phonautograph. It is unclear at present whether this recording was actually made, but a phonautographic tracing of Lincoln's voice was supposedly included among the artifacts kept by Edison.


  • Jugement d'un ouvrier sur les romans et les feuilletons à l'occasion de Ferrand et Mariette (1847)
  • Histoire de la sténographie depuis les temps anciens jusqu'à nos jours (1849)
  • Les Noms de baptême et les prénoms (1857)
  • Fixation graphique de la voix (1857)
  • Notice sur la vie et les travaux de M. Adolphe-Noël Desvergers
  • Essai de classification méthodique et synoptique des romans de chevalerie inédits et publiés. Premier appendice au catalogue raisonné des livres de la bibliothèque de M. Ambroise Firmin-Didot (1870)
  • Le Problème de la parole s'écrivant elle-même. La France, l'Amérique (1878)


Further reading

  • Helmholtz, Hermann. On the Sensations of Tone as a Physiological Basis for the Theory of Music. Translated by Alexander J. Ellis. London: Longmans, Green, 1875, p. 20.
  • History of the Phonautograph Marco, Guy A., editor. Encyclopedia of Recorded Sound in the United States. New York: Garland, 1993, p. 615.
  • Winston, Brian. Media Technology and Society: a History from the Telegraph to the Internet. New York : Routledge, 1998.

External links

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