About First Sounds
First Sounds strives to make humanity's earliest sound recordings available to all people for all time.
Humanity's earliest sound recordings constitute a rich sonic heritage of inestimable value to historians of technology, media, and expressive culture. They are among the rarest and least accessible recordings in our audio legacy. When held by institutions for which they are not the primary focus, many go unrecognized by their curators as sound recordings. And even when correctly catalogued, they commonly remain unpreserved and inaccessible due to a lack of funding or expertise.
First Sounds is a collaborative of audio historians, recording engineers, curators, technicians, scientists, and other experts.
First Sounds was established in 2007 by David Giovannoni, Patrick Feaster, Richard Martin, and Meagan Hennessey. It made news in 2008 when it identified and played back one of humanity’s first recordings of its own voice. The recording was made in 1860 (17 years before Thomas Edison invented the phonograph!) by Parisian inventor Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville on his phonautograph, a device that scratched airborne sound waves onto a sheet of soot-blackened paper. Although Scott made the recording to study visually, First Sounds’ collaborators undertook an intensive and successful effort to play it back.
Since then, First Sounds has partnered with four distinct French institutions to identify, preserve, publish, and interpret their Scott phonautograms and related documents.
First Sounds freely offers the services of its experts to identify, preserve, play, interpret, and share the earliest sound recordings held in public and private collections.
The work of First Sounds collaborators continues today in a number of areas. In the news most recently are the experimental recordings made by the Volta Laboratory in the 1880s. As a Lemelson Center Fellow, First Sounds principal Patrick Feaster spent several months studying, cataloging, and annotating the hundreds of experimental recordings in the care of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. Six specimens have been made to speak in an exciting collaboration by the Smithsonian, the Library of Congress, and First Sounds’ collaborators Carl Haber and Earl Cornell of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.