Que signifie le 1857?

by Scribble Monboddo

Amongst the doubtless endless array of interesting incidents in the year in question, perhaps the rummest of the rum was the invention of a sound recording device with no playback function. Yes, really.

Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville was apparently fascinated by captured light, and musing on photography got him thinking about a sonic equivalent. Days of tinkering led eventually to a patent application for a machine capable of capturing a vocal signature - literally, the phonautograph.

De Martinville's interest was in seeing sound waves, and he succeeded. The principle of the mechanism looks, to our eyes, something like a gramophone in reverse. The voice is focused by a cone, which causes a needle to vibrate, and that leaves a mark on a flat(ish) surface. Rather than vinyl, the surface in this case was paper or glass covered in stoveblack, or graphite in other words. A chap with similar tastes to ours, eh?

The captured sound waves served a purpose, apparently, in allowing for diagnosis of vowel formation. But they didn't have much of a commercial function because, well, no-one could hear them. There were rumblings about creating a playback mechanism a few years later but before that could get under way Edison shot the fox with a wax cylinder, and the phonograph took all the attention.

The inventor never got to hear his own voice on record, and neither did his grandchildren. But by 2008 there was laser-guided tech built to rescue sound from scratched-up vinyl by reading the waves visually, and some bright spark thought to try it out on the archived phonautograph etchings. A memorable breakthrough came with the first release of a performance of au clair de la lune, sung in a high pitch worthy of Mickey Mouse which reduced poor Charlotte Green to uncontrollable giggles while reading the news on Radio 4. It later turned out that the recording needed to be played at half that speed, and it's now believed that the voice is Édouard-Léon himself - but the somewhat mottled reputation of 'a bee in a jar' lives on.

Now, a sound recording which no-one could hear for 148 years would be a wonderfully perverse inspiration for a podcast, wouldn't it? The owner of Nero's Notes operates just such a venture, nevertheless, and you don't have to file it away for a century or two before listening, which is a bonus. Possibly to commemorate this broadcasting breakthrough - although we may never know for sure - Nero also carries a modest stock of 1857 branded items. The pencil, now discontinued, leaves a dark graphite line which presumably could capture a sound wave too, with the appropriate steampunk contraption attached. 

Better still, there's an 1857 pocket notebook - but of course there is - made by hand in exotic Rutland. You probably want one of those. But steer clear of the wax cylinders.