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The Anniversary of the first voice recording, or is it?

Either way, Edison changes the world

Thomas Alva Edison and his phonograph recorder

December 6, 1877 – Thomas Edison made the first recording of a human voice, "Mary Had a Little Lamb" on the first tinfoil cylinder phonograph.

Or was it?

Édouard-Léon de Martinville recording machine

Upon further exploration, scientists and historians have establish that de Martinville had drawn up the concept for a sound recording device in the 1850s, and that he had, in fact, made recordings 17 years earlier than Edison in 1860.

Even though de Martinville was first, he ultimately abandoned his efforts. At the time, there was no way to playback recordings. Édouard-Léon de Martinville never heard his efforts, he only saw the inscribed lines. The earliest recordings have only been heard in the modern age with the aid of computers and complex audio processing software, and even then the fidelity is incredibly poor. The original 1877 Edison recording is still presumed lost, but we can listen to Thomas Edison recreating the event for the 50th anniversary, in 1927

Edison Cylinder and storage tube

Had Edison not pursued both the technology to record as well as playback recordings, we probably wouldn't be discussing de Martinville either. Certainly someone would have discovered a way to record and playback sound, but Edison had the drive, financial means, and influence to push the fledgling technology out to the masses.

Over the next few months we'll be exploring the history, benefits, and drawbacks of the most popular media formats for recordings.

From cylinders to tape, from vinyl discs to digital bits, we will publish these articles in a somewhat chronological fashion, though sometimes continuity of format history may dictate that we jump around in the timeline just a bit.

Edison Home Phonograph

And so, what better place to begin our journey than at the beginning? Regardless of who recorded the human voice or music first, it is clear that Edison’s invention was the first to allow playback.

Initially playback was limited but eventually some version became ubiquitous in every home in the world that could afford one.

Thus the birth of an industry that is still strong over 140 years later

The next part of our musical journey will be to learn more about the Edison cylinder phonograph, some of the alternatives and competitors, and understand the shape of audio recording in the early days, before it became much flatter.

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