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IU research team uncovers oldest sound recording to date


By Nicole Vargas



Most people are familiar with Thomas Edison – his inventions, which include the light bulb and phonograph, helped shape what modern technology is today. Yet few can say they are familiar with the Parisian inventor Edouard-Leon Scott. \nBut thanks to an IU researcher and his team, a light is being shined on Scott and his contribution to our modern-day world. The team recently discovered the world’s oldest recording, predating Edison’s phonograph.\n“I was sitting there thinking, ‘My god, I’m listening to a performance of vocal music in France before the American Civil War,’” said Patrick Feaster, an IU researcher and instructor in the department of communications and culture, about first hearing the melodic recording that is “Au Clair De La Lune.” “Au Clair de La Lune” dates back to 1860, more than a decade before Edison’s invention of the phonograph.\nFeaster and fellow historian David Giovannoni are part of First Sounds, which, according to its Web site, is “an informal collaborative of audio historians, recording engineers, sound archivists, scientists, (and) other individuals.” Feaster and Giovannoni began their search for early phonautogram recordings last fall. Their journey into the sounds of the past eventually led Giovannoni to Paris. \nFeaster said they had been reading some of Scott’s writings and discovered that he had deposited more recordings at the “institut,” which they later found to mean the French Academy of Sciences. Giovannoni made arrangements to get anything deposited by Scott there. Out of the found files, “Au Clair de La Lune” was discovered. \nFeaster, back in Bloomington, managed to even the tuning fork of the sound, which let the voice track of Scott’s file pop into place, allowing him to hear, for the first time, sounds from the past. \n“It was pretty exciting – it was about 5 in the morning, I had been working on it all night,” Feaster said. “I don’t think I could have slept till I heard it.” \nThis discovery, although thrilling, has been controversial. \n“A lot of people have been claiming we’ve dethroned (Edison),” Feaster said. \nFeaster and his colleagues have even come across pictures of Edison online with the word “failed” splashed across them.\nHistory professor Michael McGerr said in an e-mail that he doesn’t believe this discovery diminishes Edison’s accomplishments.\n“Instead, it’s a reminder that innovations often emerge in different places at almost the same historical moment,” McGerr said.\nWhen asked whether he believes this discovery will undermine Edison’s work, Feaster simply smiled.\n “If Scott was the father of recorded sounds, than Edison will still be the father of playing back recorded sounds,” he said. \nFeaster and the rest of the First Sounds historians and participants will continue to look for more recordings so long as time and funding allow. Feaster said he hopes that “someday students will sit down and try to analyze sound recordings with the same rigor they do early films, for when that happens, only then we will start to get a complete sound history.”

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