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A wry view of life for the world-weary

There Ain’t ‘Alf Some Clever Bastards – Part Sixty Nine

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Edouard-Leon Scott de Martinville (1817 – 1879)

It is always fascinating to hear yourself as others hear you. Often it is quite a shock – do I really sound like that? – but the usual way in which we hear our voice as it really is is by recording it on a tape recorder or a dictaphone and then playing it back. Of course, someone must have had the brain wave to capture the human voice and this is where the latest inductee of our illustrious Hall of Fame, Leon Scott, to abbreviate the mouthful that is his name, comes in.

Scott was born and lived in Paris and was a printer by trade. Perhaps unsurprisingly,, he took some interest in the documents, journals and books that he was printing. A particular speciality of his printing business was works of scientific interest and he was able to keep abreast with the latest developments. Having seen the development of rudimentary cameras which were able to capture images of the human form, he began to wonder whether a device could be built to record the human voice. Scott saw a particularly useful application in the ability to record a conversation verbatim, what we would now call stenography and by 1849 had published a number of papers on the subject.

Proof-reading a physics textbook around 1853 he came across a series of drawings of the human auditory system and he wondered whether that could be recreated mechanically. His design replaced the tympanum with an elastic membrane in the shape of a horn and the ossicle with a series of levers which would move a stylus back and forth across a glass or paper surface blackened by smoke from an oil lamp. The object of the exercise was to capture the sound of the human voice in a way that could be deciphered rather than played back.

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Calling his device a phonautograph, Scott sent a version of its design to the French Academy on 25th March 1857 and received a French patent for his troubles. But there is one thing coming up with an idea and another making some money out of it, the significant drawback to his design being that whilst it reproduced sound as a series of squiggles it did not allow the recordist to play it back. So what sales Scott made were limited to the scientific community, principally to allow them to investigate the qualities and properties of sound. Laudable, for sure, but sales were insufficient to make a difference to his lifestyle and Scott saw out his days a librarian and bookseller.

And there it may have rested. But in 2008 a group of scientists the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory got hold of one of Scott’s phonoautographs and succeeded in converting the series of squiggles made on 9th April 1860 into a digital audio file. On playing it they heard a 20 second snatch of Scott singing, very slowly, part of Au clair de la lune, an audio recording pre-dating Thomas Edison’s recording of Handel’s oratorio, Israel in Egypt, by some 28 years.

Edison received a patent for his phonogram in 1877 and Scott went to his grave convinced that the American had wrested some of the glory that was rightfully his. For laying the foundations for recording the human voice, Leon, you are a worthy inductee into our Hall of Fame.

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If you enjoyed this, why not try Fifty Clever Bastards by Martin Fone which is now available on Amazon in Kindle format and paperback. For details follow the link https://www.amazon.co.uk/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=fifty+clever+bastards

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