The New York Times had a great piece yesterday on an 1860 phonautogram of the French folk song "Au Clair de la Lune" sung by an unknown Frenchman.
Click here to hear it. It’s mp3 format and lasts about 10 seconds. It’s very scratchy; you can barely make out the song.
It is the oldest known recording of a human voice. The reason this is important is that the recording predates Edison’s famous audio recordings by almost thirty years. (Up to now, most experts agree that the first audio recording was made in 1888 – Edison’s recording of a snippet of a Handel oratorio)
The phonautograph audio transcription device was invented by Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville in the late 1850s.
Here’s the cool thing: Scott’s machine was intended to record audio waves onto a visual medium (in this case, black paper). It wasn’t designed to be played back. Scott’s idea was to visually examine the audio waves in order to study acoustics. He was trying to find a way to "write speech," not record sound per se.
But modern day scientists have found a way to take Scott’s "audio waves on paper" — just squiggles on a paper — and turn them back into the original sound, thus creating the "earliest recorded sound".