Edouard-Leon Scott De Martinville: An Annotated Discography

By Feaster, Patrick | ARSC Journal, Spring 2010 | Go to article overview

Edouard-Leon Scott De Martinville: An Annotated Discography


Feaster, Patrick, ARSC Journal


Edouard-Leon Scott de Martinville (1817-1879) has long been recognized as the inventor of the phonautograph, the first instrument designed to inscribe the movements of a taut membrane under the influence of sounds passing through the air, using the same principle of recording later employed in Edison's phonograph. By contrast, Scott's legacy as an actual recordist has only recently begun to come to light. For many years, speculation about the recovery of Scott's own phonautograms centered on an unfounded rumor that he had visited the White House and captured the voice of Abraham Lincoln in 1863. (1) Now we know that Scott did in fact bequeath us an extensive body of incunabular recorded sound, preserved today in several French archives. My present aim is to list and describe every phonautogram recorded by Scott that is currently known to exist. This is by no means intended as a final word, but only as a first step: the task of interpreting this material will doubtless occupy generations to come, drawing on insights and strategies we can as yet scarcely imagine. It has become customary to refer to lists of sound recordings as "discographies" even when they focus on cylinders or other non-disc media, so I hope it won't raise too many eyebrows for me to call this a Scott discography.

Even though Scott recorded sounds for visual apprehension rather than for playback, the subjects he chose and the ambitions he expressed bear a striking resemblance to those we associate with later phonographic practice. Nineteenth-century acoustics textbooks--and most secondary literature until very recently--would have led us to expect no more interesting subject matter than split-second vowel snippets or studies of intervals sounded on organ pipes inscribed for dispassionate scientific study. Instead, Scott has given us singing, dramatic recitations, and scales or melodies played on the cornet. One of his ultimate objectives is revealed in a question he posed rhetorically at the start of 1857: "Pourra-t-on conserver a la generation future quelques traits de la diction d'un de ces acteurs eminents, de ces grands artistes qui meurent sans laisser apres eux la plus faible trace de leur genie?" ["Will one be able to preserve for the future generation some features of the diction of one of those eminent actors, those grand artists who die without leaving behind them the faintest trace of their genius?"] (PM 5). (2) Scott's motives, then, were aesthetic as well as scientific, directed towards posterity as well as towards the world of his contemporaries. His phonautograms anticipated more familiar phonographic developments not just in a technical sense, but in a cultural sense as well.

I have defined the basic unit in this discography as the item, meaning a single side of a physical sheet of paper, regardless of whether that side contains multiple traces or has multiple pieces of phonautograms affixed to it. Items appear in chronological order as far as the current state of knowledge permits, and individual entries are organized as follows:

* assigned item number, assigned title, estimated date

* transcription of any notations found on the item itself (in boldface)

* archival location of the physical artifact

* circumstances of deposit, construed here as meaning when an item left Scott's hands

* physical description

* any other contemporary references to the item

* comments

English translations of French texts are also provided in brackets wherever appropriate.

The quest for phonautograms reflected in this discography has now been underway for several years and has involved substantial contributions from many quarters. My first knowledge of a surviving Scott phonautogram came in 2004, when Jean-Paul Agnard kindly sent me fourth-generation photocopies of Scott's handwritten patent papers, including two that displayed the top and bottom of item 33. …

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