The Machine That's Saving the History of Recorded Sound reports that when recorded sound was in its infancy, more than 150 years ago, inventors still hadn’t answered what was, to them, a fundamental question:

What does sound look like?

They knew what sound sounded like, of course, and even what it felt like but what would it mean to see sound on paper? It was this question that inspired the French inventor Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville to design the phonoautograph, which is widely considered the earliest sound-recording machine. His theory was that if he could build a device that transcribed sound, he could read sound the way we read text.

“No one had really looked at sound waveforms before so he didn’t really know,” said Peter Alyea, a digital conservation specialist at the Library of Congress. “So he created basically what is, in current and modern terms, an oscilloscope.”


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