Phonozoic

Eli Whitney Blake, Jr.'s Photographic Sound Recordings


The Earliest Recordings of Spoken English?

We can now hear somewhat recognizable snippets of recorded speech in French from 1857 and in Italian from 1860—but what's the earliest comparable specimen of something spoken in English?

The answer, I believe, lies in a group of recordings made by Eli Whitney Blake, Jr., of Brown University and published in July 1878. But first, let's consider other possible contenders.

There are persistent rumors that Abraham Lincoln spoke into a phonautograph, and he would presumably have said something in English. However, there's not a shred of evidence that he ever did this—see here for speculation about how the rumor got started, or the novel on the right for a fictional account of a Lincoln phonautogram.

The earliest solid references I've found to anyone recording English-language speech date from 1874, and none of those give us hope of recovering anything like an actual word or phrase.

  • In February 1874, Franciscus Cornelis Donders recorded various English vowel sounds as pronounced by the eminent philologist Henry Sweet. Unfortunately, his notebook preserves only narrow strips cut out of these phonautograms. You can hear one of Donders's other sound-recording efforts here, though.
  • Charles Anson Morey recorded the vowel "oo" in the word "mood" and published the trace in Silliman's American Journal of Science and Arts for August 1874. You can hear what it sounds like here—but it sure doesn't sound like much.
  • Alexander Graham Bell likewise recorded some phonautograms of speech sounds in 1874—see here and here—but these too are very short, and there's no indication they're specifically in English (in the first case, the traces are labeled in Visible Speech).

There's nothing more until the invention of the phonograph in 1877—and even then, there's not much out there to be heard.

The recently played British Museum tinfoil is undated ("ca. 1877" is only a guess), and nobody seems to have deciphered any words from it anyway. The Frank Lambert lead pipe recording was long touted as the "world's oldest playable sound recording," from 1879 or even 1878, and it features someone reciting hours of the day: "one o'clock, two o'clock," etc, but there's no conclusive evidence that it's actually that old, and some evidence to the contrary—see ARSC Journal 33:2 (Fall 2002), 237-242 for details.

In short, no identifiable English words have been recovered from any recording definitely known to date from before the 1880s—except for the photographic sound recordings of Eli Whitney Blake, Jr. These were published in July 1878, so there is no question that they're at least that old.

Eli Whitney Blake, Jr.

Eli W. Blake, Jr.

Eli Whitney Blake, Jr. (1836-1895), a great-nephew of Eli Whitney of cotton gin fame, was the first Hazard Professor of Physics at Brown University, whose Encyclopedia Brunoniana offers a fine biographical sketch of him. As you can read there in more detail, Blake conducted a number of telephone exhibitions and experiments at Brown University during 1877. "Blake also invented a process of sound recording from which movie sound tracks evolved," the entry continues. "For a long time he was only able to record sound with no way to reproduce it." Other sources likewise touch on Blake's efforts to record sound. His daughter Alida wrote a genealogy of the family, published in 1900, in which she recalls: "An outgrowth of the telephone was my father's success in photographing sound waves. The first time it was ever done." A memorial booklet from 1895 notes that Blake's "experiments extended into all departments of physics, and were generally made with apparatus designed and constructed by himself.... His beautiful device for photographing the motion of metallic plates vibrating under human speech, merits special mention even in this rapid sketch."

Blake's recording apparatus

The "beautiful device" used a moving photographic plate to record deflections in a beam of light bounced off a mirror attached to the membrane of a telephone mouthpiece. Blake published an account of it under the title "A method of recording Articulate Vibrations by means of Photography" in Silliman's American Journal of Science and Arts (July 1878) and in Nature (July 25, 1878).

Both versions of the article included printed illustrations of recordings Blake had made in this way:

  • A set of six vowel sounds. Unlike other researchers in the same period, Blake didn't submit mere snippets cut out of vowels, but whole articulations from start to finish.
  • "Brown University"—where Blake was a professor of physics, and where he likely made the recordings.
  • "How do you do?"—a typical American English greeting, and also a common test phrase for telephones.
   


"Ah, Ay, E, I, O, U" (same plate in AJSA and Nature,
reduced to 0.56 original size
)


"Brown University / How Do You Do"
(AJSA version, reduced to 0.56 original size)


"Brown University / How Do You Do"
(Nature version, printed actual size)

The AJSA and Nature versions of "Brown University / How Do You Do" are actually different recordings, not just the same recordings divided and labeled differently. The reductions to 0.56 times the original size were "accomplished by photography on the wood itself, so that the skill of the engraver was employed simply to follow the lines, which he has done with great fidelity."

Blake tells us that he tested the speed of his "carriage" using a tuning fork, and he gives the speed for each of his recordings, allowing us to play them back at the correct speed—
—except that 40 ips sounds much too fast; I've concluded it should be 20. I converted these inscriptions into sound using my optical sound track method, and here's the result: .

Do you hear "Ah, Ay, E, I, O, U, Brown University, how do you do, Brown University, how do you do"?

The sounds are low-fidelity, to be sure, but still the only recordings of identifiable speech in the English language we know with absolute certainty date back to the 1870s.

Even so, they may not be exactly what they seem.

Other Blake Materials

On April 20, 1879, Blake wrote a letter to Alexander Graham Bell: "As promised per telephone last Saturday I enclose my last remaining prints—some of them of the original size—others photo-reductions. I have a few glass originals left but have given most of the good ones away. I hope soon to get started on a new lot but everything has been adverse this year."

The prints which Blake sent Bell aren't included among the online Bell papers, but Dr. Leonard C. Bruno of the Library of Congress kindly sent me photocopies of them.

One (shown above) depicts the same recordings as the AJSA, photo-reduced at the same scale, but as dark traces on a light background rather than light traces on a dark background, and with typeset rather than handwritten captions. The other (shown at the bottom of this page) is an original size strip. The top trace closely matches the Nature version of "How do you do," but starts with a separate, unlabeled syllable, perhaps recorded by mistake, and displays longer gaps between words. The bottom trace has a version of "How do you" that differs from either of the versions Blake published, but the final "do" closely matches the trace printed in the AJSA. This suggests that Blake cobbled together at least one of the phrases printed in the AJSA from multiple "takes," and that at least one of the recordings published in Nature was abridged by cutting out some of the silence between words.

That means that my "playback" of these recordings is a step further removed from actual 1870s speech than I originally thought. In a certain sense, though, it makes the published versions the world's oldest examples of the audio splice. It would certainly be possible to play the "unedited" Blake strip preserved at LOC as well—though ideally not from a photocopy.

In another letter to Bell of May 27, 1879, Blake noted that he had just tried using his method to record the vibrations of an actual human ear but had not been impressed with the results.

Significance

  • The earliest published sound recordings of recognizable human speech.
  • The earliest known sound recordings of identifiable words and phrases in the English language.
  • The earliest known examples of the use of photography to record sounds from the air.
  • The earliest known "spliced" sound recordings.
  • "Ah, Ay, E, I, O, U, Brown University, How do you do?" would make a great college yell.
 
 

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Original content copyright © 2009, Patrick Feaster.