Thomas Edison has largely been credited as the Father of recorded sound with his invention of the phonograph in 1877. But a team of historians found recordings that predated Edison by 20 years. They were made by French inventor Edouard-Leon Scott on a machine called a phonautograph.
Different purposes of the invention
Scott had a different purpose in his invention as compared to Edison. Edison was the first person to actually succeed in recording a sound from the atmosphere and then playing it back. It was his intention to record sounds and ideally play them back over the phone. Edison wanted his recorded sound invention to be used by businessmen. If you can record incoming phone messages, business dictation can be recorded.
In contrast, Scott, who was a professional typesetter, wanted to record sounds on paper so that he could look at them and study them. He knew how to playback the sound, but it wasn’t his intention to invent something that could playback sounds. He had written a history of shorthand writing and was really interested in getting the speech down on paper. His purpose was to invent the ultimate speech-to-text machine.
The Talking Machine
Scott’s invention was to build an artificial ear. He wanted us to be able to read sounds where we can get special details on paper, such as a great musical performance or a great speech. He made his first recording in 1860 with a snippet of the French folk song “Au Clair de la Lune”. As the speed irregularities of the sound recorded are so intense, it is hard for researchers to know whether the early recordings were considered successful. Given that playback equipment wasn’t available then, Scott could not prove that his invention worked.
20 years later, Edison’s “talking machine” became the first that could both record and playback sound successfully. Edison had already created a telegraphic repeater that could automatically repeat a morse code message. He then started thinking about recording messages for telephones too. After the completion of the phonograph, Edison put the work aside for close to a decade before it became commercially viable.
In 1887, Emile Berliner built the first gramophone. It played sound recorded on a flat record as opposed to Edison’s cylinder made of shellac. This was a revolutionary technology and was used by famous people who eventually died. British poet Robert Browning recorded one of his poems before he died.
The Victor Talking Machine was founded by Eldridge Johnson in 1901 and quickly became a leader in phonographs (the US used the name phonograph for what was the gramophone) and record sales. The masses were eager to listen to the voices of famous opera stars. By 1921, 106 million records were sold yearly in the US, mostly recorded on “Tin Pan Alley”, but control of the market was shifted towards record companies.
The birth of record companies
1926 to 1927 saw a boom in the recording of music, in particular classical music. This was the age of sound recording: sounds of the train, factories, traffic, and machine guns were recorded to be played back for an audience who may have not heard these sounds before.
It was around the same time that record companies were created that lasted a century. General Electric acquired the American branch of Marconi Wireless Telegraph and renamed it “Radio Corporation of America” (RCA) in 1921. The Music Corporation of America (MCA) was founded in 1924 as a talent agency and Decca was founded in Britain by Edward Lewis. Electrical and Musical Industries (EMI) was formed in 1931 through the merger of Gramophone (HMV) and the British subsidiary of Columbia and became the largest record label in the world for 50 years. EMI then opened the largest recording studio in the world at Abbey Road in London.
The history of recorded sound has progressed from a simple phonautograph to our MP3 audio files today. Edison visited Washington D.C. to exhibit his phonograph in 1878 and while there, he visited the Smithsonian where he learnt about Scott’s phonautograph. He was impressed by the invention but was surprised that someone would invent the recording machine without thinking of playing back the recording.