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Home > Our Research > Other Recordings & Good Stories > Charles Morey, American Phonautograph Inventor

Charles Anson Morey,
American Phonautograph Inventor

Make no mistake: Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville invented the phonautograph. However, the phonautograph first used for serious research in the United States was not the standard Scott-Koenig model but a modified version designed by an MIT student from Minnesota named Charles Anson Morey (1851-1904).

Although there were plenty of phonautographs in the United States by 1874, Morey found that "very little use is ever made of them, other than for their explanation." He attributed this to two shortcomings: (1) the amplitude of the traces was too small, and (2) there was no way to project the results onto a screen for audiences to see. Morey solved the first problem by attaching a long straw to the membrane to serve as an amplifying lever (Scott had designed a more complicated amplifying lever of his own by 1860, but this had never become a part of Koenig's instrument). To allow for projection using a magic lantern, Morey reverted to Scott's original recording medium: flat glass plates covered with lampblack. It was Morey's phonautograph that Alexander Graham Bell first used to record vowel sounds in the spring of 1874. Morey returned to Minnesota from his studies at MIT to build up the science department at Winona State Normal School (now Winona State University), of which he soon became president. He later went into law.

Morey published a description of his modified phonautograph in Silliman's American Journal of Science and Arts for August 1874, together with three sample phonautograms. First Sounds collaborator Patrick Feaster recently made high-resolution scans of these phonautograms and sent the most promising one to Earl Cornell at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, who converted it back into sound.

Listen: Morey's phonautogram, played three times in a row (mp3)

It is supposed to be the vowel sound "oo" in "mood." We don't hear it.

Still, we believe this brief phonautogram is (a) the first published effort to record a vowel sound in the English language; (b) one of the first three published sound recordings made on equipment designed by an American inventor; and (c) one of the first three published sound recordings made on American soil.

Above: Morey's phonautogram of the vowel "oo" in mood

Above: Detail from Morey's phonautogram


For more visual recordings and good stories from this author, see Patrick Feaster's Grammy-nominated Pictures of Sound.