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Working Phonautograph

For years I have been interested in the Phonautograph, a device invented by Leon Scott de Martinville in 1857 which was used to make tracings onto a carbon-coated drum which rotated under a bristle connected to a diaphragm. As sound was projected into a horn it was concentrated onto the diaphragm and the vibrations were etched onto the moving drum. The result was a visual display of the recorded sound waves. Surprisingly, it did not occur to Martinville that if permanent etchings of these were made, they could be played back producing the first recording/reproducing device years ahead of Thomas Edison’s tinfoil phonograph. In fact this brilliant leap was made by a Frenchman Charles Cros, who proposed a device to do just that. Unfortunately, Cros could not raise the capital to develop his device.

Several years ago I had the idea that if I could find original Phonautograph recordings, dating as far as 1857, it would be possible, with modern technology, to make them talk. The prospects seemed very exciting, as we could hear voices dating as far back as 20 years before Edison’s invention of the tinfoil phonograph, which was first used in 1877.

I first contacted several European museums with Phonautographs (Teylers museum of Haarlem, Netherlands & Utrech University museum in Germany) to see if they still had in their archives any remaining such recordings. Unfortunately I was unsuccessful but I decided to pursue other avenues and not give up.

I then contacted the Musée de la Civilisation in Quebec City, Quebec, Canada, as I knew they had a Duhamel Vibroscope (the cylinder device that was later used with the Phonautograph, which was also used before its invention to take traces of diapasons). During a discussion with the curator of the museum, I was told that a strange huge funnel existed, somewhere in their storage. Later when I had the opportunity to visit, I recognized at once, the recording Phonautograph horn when they showed it to me.

The remaining problem was to find all the parts missing at the end of the horn. My efforts to borrow the ones belonging to the Tyler museum in order to make a copy were not a success, as they refused to lend me the parts.

Back at the Musée de la Civilisation in Quebec, with a new curator, our common effort to find the missing parts during an afternoon was at last crowned with success. The Phonautograph being now complete, the last thing I had to do was to ask them to loan me the machine, in order for me to be able make new paper recordings. I felt this was the next logical step, as it seemed to me that it was going to be very difficult to acquire original old recordings.

While I have the original in my possession, I began the task of making a replica. To date I am in the process of putting together the six parts required to build the frame support. These parts were cut out of 1/2 inch steel plate using a laser, which struck me as rather funny to see how modern technology can help us research very old technology. Without computer assisted laser cutting, it would have cost a fortune to have them cut using a milling machine because of all the arabesque curves to be cut, with some parts so detailed that they would be most difficult to reproduce.

As it would also have been an expensive undertaking to have a steel master made for the parabolic horn just for one reproduction (or possibly a few more if collectors or museums were interested), I decided to reproduce the model pictured in the patent addendum of 1859. This one consisted of a barrel wooden horn with square capital "A" cylinder supports instead of the more "common" Koenig model with pointed "A" one.

I am pleased to say that I have been successful in making recordings onto paper and now with this important step finished I am attempting to experiment with my original goal of reproducing these recordings. Once this is done we would have proof that the idea of playing back these extremely old Phonautograph recordings was possible. The last thing left to do would be to contact museums around the world and encourage them to look under their dust piles to find such old recordings as we will now have in our hands the power to make them talk.