Earliest Recorded Sounds: Listen to Noises of Yesteryear

A black and white turntable sound player
Shoo wop, be dooby dooby doo wop.

The mood took us to dig around and find some of the earliest sounds known to humanity. This was triggered off when we heard Florence Nightingale’s voice.

It struck us as alarming just how far back these date. Going on well over 160 years ago, you can listen to distant recordings on tinny phonograph.

And it’s really an astonishing time capsule of lives once lived and a different era coming back to life. Ready your ears!

The Earliest Sound Recordings Ever

The splendidly named French inventor Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville (1817-1879) came up with the phonautograph. That was the very first sound recorder.

Despite this incredible invention, Scott died without recognition.

He came up with the idea after seeing engravings in a physics book—the drawings were of auditory anatomy.

His plan was then to mimic that with an elastic membrane for the eardrum, levers for the ossicles (three bones in the middle ear), and wood covered in lampblack.

The result was this thing, which recorded sounds with a large horn attached to a diaphragm.

The phonautograph

Thomas Edison later created a phonograph in 1877, which actually recorded sounds properly. As the phonautograph could only create visual images of noise.

So, yes, you couldn’t hear anything from recordings. Until 2008, when a recording of squiggles was restored by scientists at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California.

This is below, a primitive recording of someone singing the French folk song Au clair de la lune from 9th April, 1860.

Technology called IRENE (Image, Reconstruct, Erase Noise, Etc.) brought the squiggles to life.

And that’s now the earliest known recording of someone singing we have. But other recordings from the phonautograph date back to 1853.

There’s an assortment of the earliest sounds below made by Édouard-Léon Scott. A lot of it is unintelligible, but still! These were the first attempts to record sound.

This is a mixture of Scott’s voice and various attempts at singing. We believe one recording is his attempt at Jingle Bells.

Years later with Edison’s efforts going on, all sorts of recordings were made. Often by inventors and scientists deciding the best bet was to sing and have that recorded for posterity.

Take below, with a lab technician at Volta laboratories.

While busy reciting Mary Had a Little Lamb, there was some sort of technical failure and he recorded the very first obscenity. Hurray!

Such pioneering efforts paved the way for happenings towards the 20th century, including with some legendary Victorian era luminaries.

And that’s what we want to take a look at next. The voices of some folks who’ve gone down in legend, for one reason or another.

Florence Nightingale and Other Early Recordings

Yes, so someone decided to record Florence Nightingale (1820-1910). This was made in 1890 when she was around 70.

Her voice was recorded on a phonograph in the name of a healthcare fund. Part of the recording states:

“When I am no longer even a memory, just a name, I hope my voice may perpetuate the great work of my life. God bless my dear old comrades of Balaclava and bring them safe to shore. Florence Nightingale”

These fancy technological stuff, it seemed, was always intended for recording music. And why not? We all like that stuff.

But up until around 100 years ago, you’d have to go and listen to buskers. Or go to the opera or some such. A frightful concept!

The arrival of sound recordings allowed for such marvels as below.

This was Alessandro Moreschi (1858-1922), one of the last Italian castrato. If you’re wondering what that was, some Italian boys were castrated before puberty to preserve their singing voices.

As you may be able to tell, this practice began dying off around the early 20th century. And Moreschi was the only castrato to ever make an audio recording. These were completed in early April 1902.

Eerie social practices aside, Moreschi is actually supposed to be an average member of the castrato. His singing abilities not exceptional.

But the recording has a haunting quality to it, for sure, knowing the guy was in his early 40s when he was hitting those falsettos.

Around the same time Moreschi  was hitting high notes for posterity, we got this a recording of a full concert on January 30th, 1903.

It’s from Act 2 of Leoncavallo’s I Pagliacci and was recorded by Lionel Mapleson in New York.

There’s plenty more out there, too, we just wanted to point out this stuff is around on YouTube if you want to have a gander.

And we think we’ll end on this ancient note from one of the oldest known melodies.

That’s the Hurrian Hymn No.6 from circa 1400 B.C. It was performed much more recently on a lyre by Michael Levy.

The piece was discovered in the 1950s during an archaeological expedition.

Just goes to show us humans have been a talented bunch over the thousands of years, eh?

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