Time Machine: 1860 French Song Unearthed, First Human Recording

The Discovery of an 1860 French Recording of Au Claire de la Lune

The World’s First Voice Recording: Au Clair de la Lune

Her voice, sweet and smoky after 147 years, still floats through the air, as if the young woman is walking out of a fog to serenade her listeners. “Au clair de la lune,” she sings, gliding through the second verse of the classic French folk song by the same name. “Pierrot répondit.” Ten seconds, 11 notes and then she’s gone, her ghostly voice swallowed up again into the heavens.

In what is said to be the earliest recording ever made of a human voice, researchers at a Stanford University conference on Friday revealed to the world a sound clip with an extraordinary background. It was created in 1860 by an obscure French typesetter, nearly two decades before Thomas Edison’s invention of the phonograph. The snippet was re-created thanks to the international sleuthing by audio historians, algorithmic alchemy by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory scientists who turned squiggles on paper into sounds, and the passionate push of a collaborative of audiophiles in search of the world’s oldest sounds.

Her voice is ghostly and it’s magical, as if she were trying to come into the 21st century to sing for us,” said David Giovannoni, who helped crack the case by unearthing the “phonautogram” that Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville originally made for visual, not audio, playback. Giovannoni says downloads of the recording are flying off the internet. At least this week, he said, this ghostly cover of “Au Clair de la Lune” is “the world’s No. 1 hit.”

French Historian with the “Phonautogram”

The First Voice Recording: The Original 1860 Au Clair de la Lune

A Later 1931 Recording of Au Clair de la Lune

The New York Times has published a discussion about this discovery and others here.

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