Sound Firsts

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This episode was written & produced by Kevin Edds.

What is the oldest recorded sound in history? For over 100 years researchers thought they knew until a mind-blowing discovery by historians found something new - and technological advances allowed it to be played back for the first time in history. What is the oldest recording of a musical performance, president, battlefield, television broadcast, cell phone call, and more? Featuring Patrick Feaster, co-founder of FirstSounds.org, three-time Grammy nominee, and Ph.D. in Musicology as well as Lynn Novick, award-winning filmmaker, and co-directing partner of Ken Burns.


Home - Chris Coleman
Bodum - Steven Gutheinz
Man on Wire - Steven Gutheinz
Mystique - Sun Village
Gift of Life - Tony Anderson
Isle - Steven Gutheinz
People of the Future - UTAH
Becoming Human - Ryan Taubert
Summit - Dexter Britain
Summit - One Hundred Years
Washedway - evolv

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View Transcript ▶︎

[Music start]

From Defacto Sound, you're listening to Twenty Thousand Hertz... The stories behind the world's most recognizable and interesting sounds. I'm Dallas Taylor. In this episode, we’ll be going back in time to discover sound firsts.

[oldest known recording of cell phone call]

You’re listening to what might be the oldest known recording of a cell phone conversation, all the way back in 1948.

[continue cell phone clip]

It’s hard to believe how much technology has changed in the past century, especially for our listeners born in the first half of the 1900s.

[continue cell phone clip]

While this is the oldest known recording of a mobile phone call, according to AT&T, the first call took place in St. Louis two years earlier in 1946.

That got me wondering, what are the oldest sound recordings in existence today? And, not just recordings, but what are some of the first sounds, voices, songs, events, and audio technologies, in human history? Strap in and hold on, we’re going back in time, through the history of sound.

Patrick: My name is Patrick Feaster, I’m a co-founder of the first Sounds initiative, three-time Grammy nominee, and received my PhD in folk and riff musicology. When I was a graduate student, I wrote a dissertation on how people adapted to the phonograph when it was very, very new. This possibility of speaking or performing for people who are in different times and places was radically new at the time.

Nobody really would’ve had any sense for how to proceed. How do you talk to someone who’s not there next to you? How do you talk to someone who’s going to be listening to you at some other time? When is now? Is it when I’m speaking? Is it when you’re listening to me? Where is here? Is it where I am, is it where you are? Things like that.

So, to figure this out, to figure out how people were trying to make sense of this way back at the beginning, I needed to find some of the very earliest recordings so that I could eavesdrop on their dilemmas. To do that, I found I had to learn a lot more about the very earliest recordings to figure out which they were, how to play them, how to identify them.

For over a hundred years researchers would point at Thomas Edison as the inventor of recorded sound. [Edison recording] An 1888 Edison recording of “Israel in Egypt at London’s Crystal Palace was thought to be the oldest playable recording in existence. Edison’s revolutionary invention, the phonograph, was the first of it’s kind to both record, and playback, sound.

[Edison recording clip]

But historians knew about even older archival recordings. And the key word is “recordings” because these earlier attempts at capturing sound could not be played back.

Patrick: The very earliest experiments with something resembling sound recording as we know it today, involved recording the vibrations of vibrating objects themselves. For example, you’d pluck a string [string pluck SFX] and it would vibrate. You'd tap a metal rod [metal rod tap SFX] and it would vibrate. You’d sound a tuning fork [tuning fork SFX], and it would vibrate. The idea was you’d attach something to that object that could leave a trace. A pen, a pencil, a stylus is what we usually call this. Then move a surface along rapidly underneath it [pen drawing SFX]. If everything worked right, you’d either get a row of dots, or a wavy line that would tell you how that object had moved over time.

Styluses of all types would scratch these waveforms into materials as varied as tin foil, soot-covered paper, paraffin wax, and even… wood.

Patrick: The earliest recordings of sounds passing through the air were made by Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville. He was impressed by a discussion of how the human ear works. He had the idea of trying to build an artificial ear, where instead of passing the vibrations along to our brains, they’d write them down on a sheet of paper.

So in 2008 historian David Giovannoni, Patrick, and their colleagues rewrote history and unveiled the oldest known audio recording of a human voice ever made, by Leon Scott, 17 years before Edison patented the phonograph.

[Leon Scott recording]

Patrick: Right now the earliest really intelligible recording we have is Au clair de la lune from April 9 of 1860. That’s because we can correct the speed, it’s a recognizable tune, you can listen to someone singing across the ages, and really get a sense for what things actually sounded like in the room where he was.

[Au Clair de la Lune recording]

Leon Scott’s ear-shaped device was designed to only look at sound. He was a stenographer and wanted to invent a way to record the wave patterns of conversations, testimony, or speeches. While he had no way to playback these wave patterns, he hoped he could learn to read them like a language, thus avoiding potential errors in transcription.

Patrick: The earliest ambient noises that we could have recordings of are probably the sounds of the Metropolitan elevated railway New York City.

[NYC railway SFX]

The problem is that they don’t really sound like a whole lot. The vibration of girders that were holding up the railway. It could be that we’re hearing those. In terms of sounds from the environment, there’s a recording from 1890 of the chiming of big Ben in London.

[Big Ben reocrding]

Another favorite early recording of just noises in the background is a home recording on a wax cylinder where someone had just taken a phonograph out to a barnyard some time, probably in the late 1890’s.

[home farm recording]

But let’s go back further, even before Leon Scott’s 1860 recording. Are there other recordings out there?

Patrick: In 1857 every recording Scott made has all of these pitch fluctuations burned into it. We can try to get rid of these through guesswork. For example, in the case of a recording of the cornet made sometime in late 1857 [cornet recording], we know that cornets play continuous notes, they don’t wobble around the way the human voice could. My colleague, David Giovannoni and I have tried to speed correct one of these very early recordings of the cornet using educated guesses.

[restored cornet recording]

How about even earlier?

Patrick: Scott’s very first experiments were carried out sometime in 1853 or 1854. One of them is a plate of speech [speech clip], and the other one is a plate of guitar sounds [guitar clip]. They’re pretty messed up. We can get some sort of sounds out of them, but I doubt these sounds have much resemblance to anything that was actually heard back in 1853 or 1854.

While it’s tough to make anything of those sounds, it’s unbelievable that they still exist. That someone took sound out of the air, and made a physical record of it, and were able to even remotely reproduce it.

How about any sound from earlier than that. Is there a sound that was recorded in any fashion earlier than 1853?

Patrick: We have records of tuning forks going back to 1850 or so. You can play them back [tuning fork recording], but these aren’t sounds passing through the air. They’re sounds that were picked up at their source. Some people might say that’s not really a sound recording. If we think of recordings of electric guitars picked up electrically as sound recordings, then these tuning fork traces ought to be considered sound recordings too.

These tuning fork recordings from 1850 are currently the oldest known audio recordings of any kind. But might we one day find something even older, perhaps one that used a different recording technology or medium to capture it?

Patrick: People like to speculate about sounds somehow being recovered from the even more distant past. For example, people speculate about sounds picked up on pottery. If someone was holding a chisel or something just right up against the edge of a pot as it was spinning on a potter’s wheel, could it have picked up sounds out of the air?

Or brushstrokes on paintings. Could the paintbrush that a painter was holding have vibrated in response to sounds passing through the air? Could we recover sounds from old paintings? I have a scenario of my own in mind where dinosaurs dragging their tails in the mud could have picked up sounds. Maybe of the dinosaurs voices, or things like that.

It’s very fun to speculate about all of this, but I don’t think we’ll ever run into any experiments at recording sounds passing through the air from before the work of Leon Scott.

Now that we’ve gone as far back as possible in the history of recorded sound, let’s uncover some other sound firsts.

Patrick: For a long time, people were eager to try to find a recording of the voice of somebody born in the eighteenth century. Just a few years ago, I was going through, trying to identify a group of cylinders at Thomas Edison National historical Park, and found a recording thereof the voice of Helmuth Von Moltke. The military leader in the Prussian wars of German unification.

[Helmuth Von Moltke recording]

He was born in 1800, so the last year of the eighteenth century, making him the only person from that century whose voice survives in a recording. Which is really ironic, because his nickname was Das große Stille, or The Great Silent One because he didn’t talk very much. The earliest born woman whose voice survives on record, as far as I know, is a woman named Rachel See-wom-bwa [Rachel's voice recording] who was born in 1815.

Let’s move on to some other firsts, like those from the battlefield.

Patrick: The earliest recording of authentic noises of war dates from World War I [WWI recording]. You’ll find a lot of different statements about who the first president of the United States was to make a sound recording, or who has a sound recording that survives today. The earliest really confirmed example is going to be Teddy Roosevelt.

[Teddy Roosevelt recording]

We’re only half-way through our list of sound firsts, with more examples coming up from the worlds of radio, television, film, and even outer space. And we’re also going to speak with Lynn Novick, the acclaimed documentary filmmaker who’s worked with Ken Burns for almost 30 years as she gives her take on discovering previously unheard sounds and their importance.

We’ll get to all of that in just a moment.

[music out]


[music in]

Listening to the earliest recorded sounds and other “Sound Firsts” is fascinating because it takes us back in time, to a place where the people making these sounds had no idea that what they were doing at that moment was going to be preserved and shared with future generations.

But many of these sounds had not been collected and preserved in a way where they could get their just due and be shared with society. They were hidden away in library vaults or personal collections and no one knew what secrets they held.

We spoke with Lynn Novick, the award-winning filmmaker and co-directing partner of Ken Burns. I wondered what it must feel like to discover an unknown sound, or photograph, or personal story, and share it with the world for this first time.

Lynn: That sort of thing happens on every project that we've collaborated on. It's hard to even have words around how you feel when you hear something for the first time yourself, and you imagine what it would have been like for the people who heard that originally. Then you try to figure out how it fits into the story you're trying to tell. It sort of collapses time between the present and the past, and in a very visceral and immediate way, and I think in a way that only sound actually can do.

My parents used to talk to me about how they grew up listening to the radio, and how they would listen to the serials. They would be transported into a place, a magic place from these stories on the radio. I always was fascinated by that because I think your brain fills in the pictures when you have the sound. That's an exercise in collaboration with the oral experience and the past that's profound.

I asked Lynn if she and her production team had ever come across any “Sound Firsts” of their own.

Lynn: Certainly we've come across sounds that have never been heard by a mass television audiences on every project. Our jazz series. We realized during the course of the production that during the war, the only recordings that were made were made for the government for something called v disks. So all the great artists of that time recorded songs to be sent out to the armed forced. V for victory, v disks. Sometimes they would record not just the performance, but the artist might say something before they started singing or playing.

There's a beautiful recording that I think evokes the time so perfectly, which is Frank Sinatra. He's going to perform Long Ago and Far Away. I think it's a 1943 [Frank Sinatra recording]. It's very personal. It's very direct. It feels very real. You don't hear him talk that way that much. It's like he's speaking to you personally. That's a really resonant moment for me.

Ken Burns’ most famous film is The Civil War and Lynn was an associate producer on it. While no actual sound recordings were made during this period of American history, some of the people who lived through it were recorded afterwards.

Lynn: Ken and his brother Rick made use of some really remarkable audio recordings that had been done, I believe in the 1920s or '30s. They're recordings of oral history by people who had been enslaved [oral history recording clip]. These are real people telling you what it was really like to be enslaved. All of a sudden it doesn't seem like it's something that happened 200 years ago. It happened yesterday when you hear those recordings.

There’s even a fantastic rumor that Leon Scott actually visited the White House in 1863 and made a recording of Abraham Lincoln. Although, there’s no evidence for this. What it would mean to Lynn to actually hear Lincoln’s voice.

Lynn: Well, first of all, hearing any representation of the voice of Abraham Lincoln would be a transcendent experience because he is so much larger than life, that it's hard to think of him as a real person. There's a grandiosity and an intimacy to what he writes and how he framed up the issues of the day. Ken and I were recently at the Lincoln Memorial, and we were standing there looking at this monumental statue. Hearing his voice would be a way to get reintroduced to him as a person and not as this unknowable leader.

Lynn’s latest collaboration with Ken Burns is their new film “The Vietnam War.” In producing this film I wondered if they discovered any sound firsts.

Lynn: One thing that we came across, was a recording that Ho Chi Minh made reading a poem that was broadcast in January of 1968 and the poem was supposed to be a signal to the Communist forces to launch the Tet Offensive [Ho Chi Minh recording]. He recorded this poem and they put it on the air and we were able to get a recording of it and put it in the film and subtitle it so that you hear what he’s saying.

He’s saying, "Forward, victory will be ours," but it's actually coded message. And I don't think any Americans, or very few, would have heard that before our film comes out.

These are powerful men making enormously important and influential decisions. It's really important to listen to them.

[Continue Ho Chi Minh recording]

The films that Lynn has worked on through the years get a pretty wide audience. But a few other sound firsts did not. One of those is a recording of the first commercial radio broadcast in history. Dr. Frank Conrad was a ham radio tinkerer in Pittsburgh. He played records over the airwaves for his friends. So when Westinghouse Electric Corporation asked him to set up a regular transmission on station KDKA in November of 1920, here’s what it sounded like.

[Dr. Frank Conrad recording]

The first sounds that came from a television broadcast were by the BBC in England in March of 1930 in a theatrical performance of the play “The Man with the Flower in His Mouth.”

[The Man with the Flower in His Mouth recording]

Unfortunately, only four households in the area had televisions to tune in.

The first feature-length movie with lip-synched audio was The Jazz Singer in 1927.

[The Jazz Singer clip]

The first stereo sound recording for a commercial film was made in 1938 for the Judy Garland movie, Listen, Darling.

[Listen, Darling clip]

In 2016 researchers restored the first recording of computer-generated music that was programmed by the British computer scientist Alan Turing in 1951.

[Alan Turing's music recording]

At this point you may think we’ve reached our limit, but this is just audio from Earth. The first sounds broadcast from the moon were from Soviet engineers in 1966 [moon recording]. The Luna-10 entered orbit around the Moon and began to broadcast the song “The Internationale.”

And we even have the first sounds from Mars. In 2012 the Curiosity team broadcast an audio message delivered by NASA administrator Charles Bolden.

[Charles Bolden recording]

But just wait, we’ll hear real ambient sound from the surface of Mars in 2021 when a new rover will land on the red planet with a microphone for the first time.

It’s interesting to think that just over 10 years ago our concept of the oldest recorded sounds in history were from the late 1870s. But discoveries by researchers and advancements in technology pushed that back to the 1850s. I wondered what new technology might do for some of the unintelligible Leon Scott recordings prior to 1860.

Patrick: I do believe that over time we’ll be able to develop techniques for making better educated guesses about the earlier recordings. I’ve been doing some experiments myself lately aimed at trying to find patterns in the irregularities.

Lots of possibilities here. Lots of room for very creative experimentation. But, I’m pretty sure that before too much longer, we’ll be able to listen with a lot more confidence.

The search for the oldest, and the first, types of sounds in history has made me reflect on the importance of sound in our lives. A photograph is a literal snapshot. It’s a singular moment in time. But sound that can last for seconds, even minutes, helps us feel in an almost indescribable way what it may have been like to live in earlier times and to almost know another human from a bygone era.

[Alexander Graham Bell recording from 1885]

Lynn: In a way, there's something that happens where you read something in a book or you imagine it, but when a person who was there tells you something that confirms what you've already think happened, it kind of cements it and makes it real.

Patrick: It’s crucial that we preserve these earliest traces of our audible past. Imagine what it would be like if we didn’t have any photographs of what the world looked like more than 50 years ago. What would we lose by not knowing what a city street looked like in the year 1900? Or what the faces of the presidents of the United States really looked like? Not the idealized pictures we get in paintings, but what these people really looked like. If we lost the earlier sound recordings that we possess, the loss would be similar. Sound matters.

It’s interesting to think that Leon Scott was the first person to record the human voice, and as my words are being recorded now, at this instant, it’s the very last recorded voice in human history… if only… for a fleeting moment.

Twenty Thousand Hertz is presented by Defacto Sound. A sound design team dedicated to making television, film, and games sound incredible. Find out more at Defacto Sound dot com.

This episode was produced and edited by Kevin Edds… and me, Dallas Taylor, with help from Sam Schneble. It was sound designed and mixed by Colin DeVarney.

Many thanks to Patrick Feaster and his colleagues at FirstSounds.org, who aim to make mankind's earliest sound recordings available to all people for all time. And thanks to Lynn Novick whose new film “The Vietnam War” premieres September 17th on PBS.

Like the music you hear on this episode of 20 Thousand Hertz? Each song is provided by our friends at Musicbed! You can listen to all of them, including this one, “Summit” by One Hundred Years, on our exclusive playlist. Start listening now at music.20k.org

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Thanks for listening.


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