By the light of the moon

The phonautograph was the first known sound recording device. It was patented in 1857 by French inventor Edouard-Leon Scott de Martinville. It consisted of a large copper barrel with a diaphragm on the end to which a stylus with a hogs bristle was attached. Next to the barrel was a roll of oil lamp smoke blackened paper which was fed through the device by turning a handle. The recording was made by speaking into the barrel, which moved the stylus and made an etching into the paper in the form of a squiggly line akin to a seismograph.

An apparent drawback of the phonautograph is its inability to play back the sounds it recorded. It was however, intended only to be used to study sound by producing a visual representation. It inspired a number of other phonautographs to be made and was the inspiration for Thomas Edisons Phonograph –a device that could be played back.

In 2008 Scientists at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory made high resolution scans of some recordings that had survived. They made a “virtual stylus” and were able to play the sound back. The song they played was “Au Clair de la Lune” (“By the light of the moon”). The variables which effected the initial recording –speed at which the handle was turned to feed the paper etc, meant that the recording sounded like it was being sung by a child or and adolescent, but further research suggests that it might have been Scott himself.

Whilst on a residency at Manchester Metropolitan University, I was building a small wind turbine and happened upon the phonautograph whilst researching alternative methods of generating electricity. After deciding that generating electricity from sound was too difficult, if not impossible -at least for my abilities, I decided to start creating my own phonautograph. My motivation was to connect my work with the landscape and blur the boundaries between the inside and the outside and our relationship within that. I am also interested in the translation of energy from one thing to another.

I have made four identical phonautographs. Mine work automatically, using a dynamic microphone placed outside, they have an automatic paper feed driven by a motor and they use small amplifier modules which send a signal to a small motor with a stylus attached. I have been working on them whilst at Cow House and today I managed to get them all up and running.

One response to “By the light of the moon

  1. Bravo Maestro! Next stop the moon!

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