At the Dawn of Recorded Sound, No One Cared

May 24, 2017
1859 model of Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville's phonautograph. Wikimedia Commons.

Emily Thompson spoke with NPR's All Things Considered about the earliest sound recording devices. Edouard Leon Scott de Martinsville invented the first device that recorded sound with his phonautograph, patented in 1857, but it was Thomas Edison's phonograph, invented in 1877, that found a market and revolutionized an industry.

"The idea of playback just didn't occur to him" says Emily Thompson, a professor at Princeton who teaches the history of sound technology. "He wanted to understand how sounds worked. He's part of a tradition of finding ways to render sound visible so that you could look at it and learn about it."

Scott proved that vibrations are truly how sounds came to our ears. But Thompson says the scientific community had trouble accepting his breakthrough.

"A sound separated from a sounding body was just sort of a conceptual leap," she says. "I'm not sure people had the cultural context to invent this stuff."

Listen to the story on NPR.

Area of Interest: 
History of Technology