Mankind has always tried to find ways to broadcast information at a distance. Smoke signals would allow for gathering people to one specific spot as well as sending news or important information. There were carrier pigeons, beacons of light, horns as well as drums, but these systems were limited. The first system to send complicated messages was visual telegraphy (semaphore line) by Claude Chappe in 1791. It was made up of a series of towers with arms that would broadcast symbols with panels to the next tower and would be carried across long distances in a fairly short time depending on how well the message receivers were trained. 

In a natural progression from the semaphore system, in the age of electricity, was the electric telegraph 45 years later. Samuel Morse is associated with the telegraph more than any other even though he was not the first to invent it. The telegraph works by using waves of electricity to send audible sound via an electromagnetic circuit. A battery is connected to the bottom half of the telegraph key and if you complete the circuit by having the telegraph or “Morse key” pressed down a click is produced. The longer the contact is made the longer the click. The first telegraphs could only send messages short distances. After hearing about the death of his wife three days after she died in childbirth (he was also a painter and was commissioned to do a portrait of Revolutionary legend Marquis de Lafayette at the time), Morse decided that there had to be a quicker way to send messages. He advanced a code and a system of sending more information over longer distances with Samuel Vail.

Around the same time the telegraph was seeing further advancements in the 1850s from Morse and Vail who were attempting to create a transcontinental telegraph, in France the first recorded sounds of the human voice were being produced by Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville. They were never intended for playback, but with modern technology they can indeed be heard. The first surviving recording from these was a bit of the French folk song Au Clair de la Lune. 

The late 1850s also brought the first working telephone by Philipp Reis who found that a galvanic current which is continuously interrupted with an iron rod placed through an empty wire could be used to transmit the human voice. Alexander Graham Bell and his brothers studied Reis—their ideas were taken on by Bell in 1876-1877. Bell was also heavily influenced by Antonio Meucci whose labs and equipment he had used in the 1860s. This was only live. True sound recording was not far behind.

1877 was a monumental year for sound and it was also Thomas Edison’s year to truly dabble in sound. His greatest contribution was the phonograph which was able to not just record the human voice, but was able to play back the recordings. It used Édouard-Léon Scott’s idea of recording onto a cylinder, but this time with a thin layer of tin foil. He recorded a bit of “Mary Had A Little Lamb.” The original recording did not survive, but on the 50th anniversary of the phonograph he recreated the moment for a newsreel recorded in sound in 1927.

After seeing the Zoopraxiscope demonstrated (invented in 1879) by film inventor Eadweard Muybridge in 1888, Edison and Muybridge decided to collaborate combining the phonograph and Zoopraxiscope for sound film. What they ended up with is the Kinetoscope in 1894. Edison used his phonograph and as with future attempts to follow via phonograph it was too quiet for a full theater and too unreliable to be synced. Unable to get a reliable sound system to sync to film he settled in 1895 for a peep show format where one holds a speaker to the ear and looks through a hole. Edison was convinced this would take off, but it did not. He called it the Kinetephone. The first of these films was of two men waltzing to a violin player playing a song from The Bells of Corneville. The sound was initially lost and the experiment initially failed, but when it was discovered split in two in 1964 and it was properly synced and restored in 2002.

Next week: Thomas Edison and his continuing experiments to sync the phonograph with film.