This blog is for everyone who uses words.

The ordinary-sized words are for everyone, but the big ones are especially for children.

Saturday, 9 April 2016

Saturday Rave: Edouard-Leon Scott de Martinville's Au Clair de la Lune

Today is the 156th anniversary of something wonderful.

On April 9th 1860 Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville sang the beginning of the French traditional song Au Clair de la Lune.

Was he a brilliant singer who transformed a simple folk song into an imperishable emotional journey?

Well, not on the evidence we have, no. He seems to have been a pretty awful singer, and the probable proof of this is in his choice of song, which stays pretty much as close to a single pitch as it can get while still calling itself a tune, as generations of beginner musicians can with gratitude attest.

HERE Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville  is (at least, we assume it's he) singing. This isn't actually the April 9th version, as a matter of fact (that's HERE) but one sung a week later.

Yes, it is painful: so why is it so marvellous and important?

Because this recording is the very first ever of a human voice saying intelligible words.

Even more magically, de Martinville had no idea at the time that his recording would ever be played back. What he was trying to do was to make a picture of the human voice. He constructed his recording device, which he called a phonautograph:

(here it is)

based on the mechanics of the human ear. Here, below, is a bit of a phonautograph recording, which was traced by a vibrating pig bristle onto a piece of paper covered in soot from an oil lamp.

That was more or less that until 2007, when David Giovanni, Patrick Feaster, Meagan Hennessey and Richard Martin formed First Sounds, a project to bring to the world the first recordings of the human voice. And then, by a leap of combined logic, intelligence, engineering and faith, they managed to turn these sooty lines back into something we can hear.

What, short of a unicorn in the garden, could be much more magical than that?

Word To Use Today: phonautograph. I suppose the auto bit of this word does tend to suggest the recorded voice is de Martinville's own, doesn't it, because auto- comes from the Greek autos, which means self.


  1. Thanks so much, Anthony, I thought it was, too. It's a great mix of primitive and sophisticated technology, isn't it.