The embedded message in the world’s first recording

What is now known as the world’s first audible recording of a human voice is only 10 seconds in length but surprisingly clear. And I have been listening to this 1860 recording over and over, captivated by its beauty and melancholy.

This folk song, Au Clair de la Lune, is still recorded today. But why did Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville pick this particular song to be the world’s first recorded music?

The discovery of Scott’s recording is due to the work of First Sounds, a collaborative of audio historians, archivists and scientists. Scott’s recording predates Thomas Edison’s work by almost two decades.

Scott recorded this music on his “phonautograph,” which First Sounds described as “a device that scratched sound waves onto a sheet of paper blackened by the smoke of an oil lamp.”

By trade Scott was a printer – an information technologist for his day – and probably as wired into his information age as one could possibly be in the mid-1800s.

Although Scott sought a patent for his phonautograph, he also knew that he could not save his recording without help. The preservation technology he would have needed was decades off. His gave this 10 second sliver of music to the French Academy of Sciences. And the Academy, through all the World Wars and troubles of the times, did its job and protected this fragment.

Scott was a visionary but the evidence suggests that he also acted with purpose and planning, otherwise his recording would not exist today. I have to believe that his decision to record Au Clair de la Lune, in particular, was also deliberate.

I cannot tell for certain the exact words that are on the 10 second recording; what part of Au Clair de la Lune is in this fragment. But that’s not as important as knowing what Scott was trying to record.

There are variations of Au Clair de la Lune, both as a song for adults and children, as well as differing translations. I hope readers forgive me for my particular choice of translated text. But the essence of the song is about a search -- a search at night for a pen and a light. For sure, Scott had little to guide him in his development of a recording technology. And like many brilliant inventors, he was taking a path lit only by moonlight.

And I think Scott’s message for our time, and all time, is a clue embedded in the lyrics of this song. In one English translation [Here are two other translation variations]:

“We looked for pen. We looked for fire.”

In making this recording, Scott tells us that he found both.

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