Arts & Entertainment

Thomas Edison National Historical Park Displays "The Origins of Sound Recording" Exhibit

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WEST ORANGE, NJ — In commemoration of the 200th anniversary of French inventor Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville’s birth, West Orange’s Thomas Edison National Historical Park (TENHP) hosted an international symposium entitled “The Origins of Sound Recording: Edouard-Léon Scott de Martinville Bicentennial Symposium.”

The National Park Service recently announced the release of an online exhibit and videos that share the latest historical research into the beginnings of recorded sound technology. The web presentation is available HERE.

A physical version of the exhibit, which includes a full-scale replica 1859 Scott phonautograph, is on display at TENHP this summer through Aug. 27.

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Researchers Patrick Feaster and David Giovannoni presented their latest findings to an audience of scholars, teachers, students, writers, and documentarians at the TENHP event. Included among the attendees were American representatives from the National Park Service, French dignitaries from the scientific establishment, and representatives of both Scott's and Edison's families. The new web presentation features video recordings of the full program.

Recent research calls attention to the work of Scott (1817-1879), whose phonautograph, which was patented in France in 1857, graphically inscribed airborne sounds over time onto a permanent medium. As such, it was the earliest sound-recording device.

Twenty years later, Thomas Edison independently re-invented sound recording in the form of the phonograph—the first device to both record and reproduce (or “playback”) sound.

The web exhibit, authored by researcher David Giovannoni, contextualizes and compares the innovations of Scott and Edison. It also explains the role of Charles Cros (1842-1888), a visionary Frenchman who conceptualized sound reproduction just weeks before Edison. 

Although both Scott and Cros anticipated a number of essential elements of Edison’s phonograph, historical evidence indicates that Edison conceived of sound recording without prior knowledge of their work.

Because Scott's phonautograph lacked the ability to playback its recordings, he was unable to prove that it actually captured interpretable sound recordings, and faced skepticism. The significance of Scott's phonautograph was not fully recognized during his lifetime. In 2008, researchers Giovannoni and Feaster located Scott’s surviving recordings in French archives. 

Using digital technologies, they demonstrated that Scott's recordings could be understood upon playback. This confirmed Scott as the initial inventor of sound recording and called upon historians to re-examine and reframe Edison’s 1877 invention of the phonograph.

As of 2017, there is access to a much fuller, clearer picture of Scott’s history, and a better understanding of how it relates to Edison’s first phonograph.

Thomas Edison National Historical Park is located at 211 Main Street in West Orange. To learn more about TENHP, click HERE or call (973) 736-0550. 

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