Leon Scott and the Phonautograph

Scott phonautograph from Smithsonian
Edouard-Leon Scott de Martinville was born in France in 1817. As a printer by trade, he was able to read accounts of the latest scientific discoveries and became an inventor. On March 25, 1857, he received French patent #17,897/31,470 for the phonautograph. This device made a visual image of sound waves on a cylinder, but did not play or reproduce any sounds. Scott used a horn to collect sound, a diaphragm at the end of the horn that vibrated from the sound, a stiff brush bristle attached to the diaphragm, and a rotating cylinder covered with lampblack or blackened paper that recorded the wavy lines from the vibrating diaphragm and bristle. He also used flat discs to trace the lateral motions of his bristle, as Emile Berliner would later do with his gramophone. One of Scott's cylinder machines (pictured at left) has been preserved in the collections of the Smithsonian Institution, although it is incorrectly labeled as the "first machine to record sound."

Scott, with the help of Rudolph Koenig who made musical instruments at 27 Quai d'Anjou in Paris, constructed some machines for scientific purposes, but he was not able to profit from his invention and spent the remainder of his life as a librarian and bookseller at 9 rue Vivienne in Paris. He died April 26, 1879, two years after Edison's invention. Despite his claims that he was the true inventor of the phonograph, Scott was never able to do what Edison did, to make indentations on a cylinder that could vibrate a diaphragm as did the original sound waves. In 1877, another French inventor, Charles M. Cros, described a device called the paleophone that was similar to Scott's phonautograph. Although Scott's phonautograph only made images of sound, it was a valuable tool used by later scientists such as Helmholtz, Bell, and Edison.


1999-2004 by Steven E. Schoenherr. All rights reserved.

revised 1/15/04 | Recording Technology History