The First Phonautograph in America (1859)

In 1859, a wealthy Philadelphia merchant named Charles N. Bancker bought a phonautograph for his lavish private collection of scientific apparatus.  It may have been the first phonautograph ever sold, and perhaps even the first one professionally built.  In 1871, Professor Henry Morton bought it from Bancker’s estate in turn—together with a collection of phonautograms—on behalf of the recently founded Stevens Institute of Technology.  It could still be there.  And if it were to turn up, it would be the only known specimen of the first commercial model of phonautograph, made before a thorough redesign in the early 1860s.  Indeed, it would be the oldest known phonautograph, period.

Why would that be a big deal?  Well, the phonautograph was the first instrument ever designed to record sounds out of the air over time.  Unlike the phonograph Thomas Edison would unveil a couple decades later, it captured sounds on paper as waveforms for visual study rather than playback, but it still recorded them, much as a seismograph records the vibrations of earthquakes.  Thus, if Bancker’s phonautograph were to surface at the Stevens Institute today, it would be the world’s oldest known sound-recording machine.  Meanwhile, the phonautograms that accompanied it, if they survive, would be the oldest sound recordings in America.  Depending on what they are, these could be the oldest sound recordings made in America, or well-made French vocal recordings predating the iconic “Au Clair de la Lune” phonautogram of April 9, 1860—or, if we were really lucky, maybe a combination of both.

This is an incredibly exciting lead, and I’m optimistic that it will pan out, but it’s been taking some time to pursue.  The historical holdings of the Stevens Institute are rich and vast, and they could easily conceal a treasure of such world-historical magnitude, but I’m told that they’re incompletely inventoried and scattered over multiple locations, making a targeted search somewhat challenging.  With that in mind, I’ve decided to make the information I’ve gathered public here without further delay to put it on record and ensure that it doesn’t get forgotten for another century.  Besides, the story of the first phonautograph in America has historical interest in its own right, regardless of whether it ultimately leads us to a machine and recordings.

Back in April 2014, I was looking through the transcripts of some court cases in the Edison papers for information about a unique paraffin-on-glass phonograph cylinder at Thomas Edison National Historical Park (which I still need to get around to writing about) when I stumbled across something unexpected.  On March 28, 1896, Dr. Henry Jackson Morton (1836-1902), President of the Stevens Institute of Technology, had given a deposition in a court case relating to phonographic technology and gave an account of his credentials which included the following statement:

As to the special matter of apparatus to record and reproduce articulate speech and similar sounds, my experience or observation began quite early, in that fully thirty years ago I was familiar with the apparatus known as Leon Scott’s phonautograph. I was at that time residing in Philadelphia, and had access to a very extensive collection of acoustic and optical apparatus made by Mr. Charles N. Banker, which included a Scott’s phonautograph, together with a number of records of various sounds, produced on sheets of paper, by the same. This apparatus and its records I observed and examined at that time. Subsequently, when I took charge of the Stevens Institute, I advised the purchase of this apparatus, which was offered for sale after the death of Mr. Banker, and the same was bought for the Institute, including the phonautograph and records; and with this apparatus various experiments were made, in which I took part, at the Institute, so that I was familiar with the apparatus and its mode of operation from personal experience.[1]

Thirty years before 1896 would have been 1866, which should correspond roughly to the date when Morton had “observed and examined” a phonautograph and “records of various sounds” in Philadelphia.  Morton had later arranged to buy the same phonautograph and records for the Stevens Institute, where “various experiments” had continued to be made, presumably involving the creation of additional phonautograms.

Further investigation quickly revealed that “Charles N. Banker” was more properly Charles Nicoll Bancker (b. 1777/8, d. 1869) of Philadelphia, president of the local Franklin Insurance Company.  A striking account by the Abbé Moigno about Bancker’s role as an avid collector of scientific instruments appeared in Cosmos in 1859:

The scientific passion that suddenly seizes wealthy American merchants presents a truly wonderful side.  We are in frequent contact with Mr. Banker [sic], of Philadelphia, who has been taken by such a great love for optics that he would not forgive himself for letting a new device go by without immediately acquiring it.  His collection of optical instruments is certainly the most numerous and most brilliant that exists in the world; it contains in itself more riches than all our cabinets of France and perhaps of Europe as a whole.  And its venerable founder, whose ardor seems to increase ceaselessly with age, never stops piling up new riches there.  When the four volumes of our Répertoire d’optique appeared [1847-50], Mr. Banker immediately browsed it, took an exact note of all devices that were described or mentioned, and made it the subject of a considerable order addressed to our famous artist Jules Duboscq. The same thing was repeated when Mr. Beer had published his Introduction à la haute optique [1853 in German, 1858 in French], and the same fate surely awaits the Traité d’optique of Mr. Billet [1858-9].  The delays of Parisian manufacturers a hundred times drove the noble old man to desperation, and with a holy impatience he appealed to German artists.  Some months ago, Dr. Swaim, one of the active correspondents of Mr. Banker in Paris, invited us to visit in rue de la Paix a lovely assortment of German optical novelties which he had received from the Albert brothers of Frankfurt, and which he was shipping to Philadelphia. Mr. Soleil Sr. built for the polytechnic school in Cairo a large interferential refractor of François Arago; following the retirement of the school’s director, Mr. Lambert, who had placed the order, the refractor was not sent to its destination. It was an apparatus of considerable price which no French institution would have wanted to purchase.  We warned Mr. Banker of the embarrassment in which the honorable Mr. Soleil found himself, we expressed to him our desire to see him open his cabinet to Arago’s masterpiece.  Courier post by courier post, the American sent us the generous sum necessary for this weighty acquisition and asked us for a lengthy description that served as guide in the repetition of the experiments that the instrument allowed to be conducted.  Mr. Banker is an avid reader of Cosmos, and when he saw on the horizon the photometer and the interferential refractor of Mr. Jamin, the silver mirror telescope of Leon Foucault, etc., etc., he wrote to us forthwith to permit him to take possession of these new conquests of science. We do not exaggerate in estimating the optical treasure of Mr. Bancker at several hundred thousand francs, a treasure which he will certainly bequeath to some American university, as the famous Bowditch bequeathed to the city and university of Boston (United States) his library, the richest and most numerous that ever was in works of science and especially of mathematics. When he is not being passionate about science, the American merchant, enriched and retired from business, is a great lover of the fine arts, he chases after rare porcelains, or after the more or less authentic paintings of the great masters, and is building himself a museumA magnificent cabinet of physics, a numerous and select library, a giant observatory, seem to us preferable to collections of terracotta or necessarily inferior paintings, and the names of Banker, of Bowditch, of Dudley will more properly achieve immortality, surrounded by universal recognition.[2]

During the same year this article appeared—1859—the scientific instrument-maker Rudolph Koenig of Paris first offered the phonautograph for commercial sale.  This wasn’t an optical instrument, but other sources reveal that Bancker was plenty interested in acoustic equipment as well, and the phonautograph would surely have caught his attention.  How could he have passed up the first device in the world designed to record airborne sound vibrations over time, including those of the human voice?

The phonautograph had been patented back in 1857 by its inventor, Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville, and news of the breakthrough had quickly spread through the international scientific and popular press.  In 1858, the Journal of the Franklin Institute had published an account of it as follows:

The Cosmos, in the number of 25th December, 1857, speaks of a curious apparatus devised by M. Leon Scott, a corrector of the press, by means of which some very interesting experiments were made in reference to the different qualities of sounds, and the cause of these differences.  The apparatus consists of a tube spreading out widely at one extremity like a trumpet, and closed at the other end by a thin stretched membrane to the middle of which is attached a very light pencil.  The tube concentrates the sounds which enter by its base, and the vibrations of the membrane thus produced are written by the pencil upon a paper coated with lamp-black, which is uniformly passed under the pencil by clock-work.  The traces thus produced may be copied and preserved (magnified if necessary) by photography.

When the common accord was sounded on different instruments, the figures formed were very different both in form and dimensions, according as wind instruments, stringed instruments, or the human voice were used.  The same differences were seen when the record of singing was compared with that of unmusical noises.  M. Scott established this curious fact, that the series of vibrations formed by the sound of an instrument or voice was more regular, even, and consequently more nearly isochromous [sic, should be “isochronous”], in proportion as it is more pure and agreeable to the ear.  In shrill cries, and harsh sounds of instruments, the waves of condensation are irregular, unequal, and not isochromous.  In one experiment it was shown, that in the impure sounds of the voice, two, and sometimes three, secondary sets of vibrations could be detected, combined with the principal.

This subject is not new, Mersenne, Savart, Young, and others, have devised means for rendering sonorous vibrations visible; and recently a beautiful series of investigations has been made by M. Lissajous, with a very ingenious and delicate modification of Dr. Young’s vibrating spring.  But the idea of reading the results is new to us, and the apparatus is so simple, and the experiments so curious and interesting, that we hope many of our readers may be tempted to repeat them.[3]

Of course, as an “avid reader of Cosmos,” Bancker had probably already read the Abbé Moigno’s original report in French on which the above account was based,[4] and his first thought would predictably have been to get one of Scott’s instruments into his collection as quickly as possible.  Maybe he even wrote to Moigno asking how he could obtain one, and what it would cost, rather than waiting passively for one to become available.  After all, it seems that such communications between the two men about novelties reported in Cosmos were fairly common.

In 1858, Moigno would have had to inform Bancker that phonautographs weren’t yet available to buy anywhere at any price.  However, according to Scott, it was Moigno who introduced him to Rudolph Koenig early in 1859,[5] initiating their collaboration on a marketable version of the invention and, indeed, launching Koenig’s career as an independent manufacturer of scientific precision instruments.  The assumption, I think, has been that Koenig undertook this work on speculation.  But could he have decided to work with Scott on developing a commercial phonautograph because Moigno had already lined up one guaranteed sale to a wealthy American collector?  It’s certainly possible.

Or maybe Bancker was instead merely one of the first people to respond to regular phonautograph advertising.  In Koenig’s inaugural catalog of 1859,[6] the default model of phonautograph (item 48) was priced at 500 francs, reduced to 400 francs if the cylinder and membrane-holder were made of wood (item 49). The exchange rate in this period was around 5.4 francs to the dollar, so the two models of phonautograph would have run around $93 or $74 respectively in United States currency.

Either way, judging from Moigno’s account, Bancker would presumably have ordered a phonautograph the moment he confirmed he could get one, and there’s compelling circumstantial evidence that he did just that.  In a self-published book of 1878, Scott notes that the phonautograph “has been in Philadelphia since 1859” [“l’appareil Scott figure à Philadelphie depuis 1859“].[7]  The only likely purchaser in Philadelphia at that time would have been Charles Bancker.  If he purchased and imported his phonautograph in 1859, he would have had it in his collection for roughly seven years when Morton saw it around 1866.

The early date of Bancker’s purchase would be particularly significant.  The model of phonautograph which Koenig first offered for sale in 1859 differed radically from the ones manufactured just a few years later, in that it had a plaster ellipsoid sound-chamber and allowed the angle of the membrane to be varied relative to it.  No original specimens of this first commercial model are known to survive anywhere in the world today, and it’s unclear how many Koenig even made.  He had definitely built one by the end of July 1859, when a drawing of it was submitted with a certificate of addition to Scott’s 1857 patent together with an actual recording made on it.  But it seems unlikely he would have built up much of an inventory early on, as opposed to constructing new machines as they were needed.

And it’s hard to find evidence of Koenig phonautographs existing in any significant numbers during 1859-60.  In September 1859, the Abbé Moigno attended the meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in Aberdeen and gave a high-profile presentation about the phonautograph there, but he didn’t take along an actual instrument to exhibit, limiting himself to showing a drawing of it and some of its recordings, which caused quite a furor in themselves.  Probably Koenig hadn’t had an extra machine on hand to spare at the time.  Who knows—maybe he’d just disposed of his original machine to Bancker in Philadelphia and hadn’t yet finished a second one.  That December, a piece in Cosmos described the phonautograph as something “which all of our readers can see at work chez the skilled manufacturer, M. Rodolphe Kœnig,”[8] implying that there was a floor model on display at Koenig’s own atelier at that point; and in an article published in 1860, the scientific instrument-maker Wilhelm Martin Logeman of Haarlem described seeing a phonautograph in action during a recent trip to Paris, with a barrel-shaped (“tonvormig”) sound-collector.[9]  The first reference I’ve seen to a phonautograph elsewhere in Europe comes from Karl Vierordt, who wrote in the first edition of his Grundriss der Physiologie des Menschen—published in early 1860, but with a preface dated December 1859—that one had just arrived at the local physiological institute (“im hiesigen physiologischen Institut”), presumably the one in Tübingen where he worked, but that nobody had yet had a chance to experiment with it.[10]  A few years earlier, Vierordt had pioneered the making of automatic records of the human pulse on sheets of lamp-blacked paper wrapped around a rotating cylinder—the same medium Scott used—so it’s easy to understand why he might have taken enough of an interest in the phonautograph to push for his institution to acquire one.

But there’s no reason to think Koenig was doing a booming business in phonautographs in 1859-60, or that he had built more than a very few of them, which would help explain why none have yet been found from that period.  Indeed, the images we have of the first model could conceivably all depict a single, solitary instrument.  Below, running counterclockwise from the top left, are the official 1859 patent drawing, an illustration from the 1860 edition of Ganot’s treatise on physiology, an illustration from the 1862 edition of Müller’s handbook on physics and meteorology, and an illustration of the first model of phonautograph in Pisko’s 1865 book on acoustic apparatus.[11]

1859-model-phonautographEven the decorative supports are identical in all of these images but the one at the lower right, which seems to have been based closely on the image at the lower left, such that the variation in detail might reflect artistic license.  The only really substantial difference is in the design of the cylinder, axle, and handle; the bottom two images may show the costlier metal version, and the top two images the cheaper wooden version.

Koenig soon abandoned his original commercial design of 1859, so he wouldn’t have been building machines like this for very long anyway.  Already towards the end of that year, Scott had substituted a funnel-shaped speaking trumpet for the ellipsoid chamber in his own experiments;[12] and by 1862, Koenig had followed suit, switching to a paraboloid sound collector made of zinc, with the membrane assembly fixed permanently in place rather than adjustable as before.  All Koenig phonautographs known to survive today have metal funnels of the later type.

pisko-later-phonautographIf Bancker had in fact bought a phonautograph in 1859, it would have been one of the only documented instruments of the original design with the plaster ellipsoid sound-collector.  If it could be found today, it would be the oldest known phonautograph—or, in other words, the oldest known sound-recording instrument in the world.  But can we confirm that what Bancker had was, in fact, a specimen of the first model of 1859?  So far, we have only Scott’s own word for it that there was a phonautograph in Philadelphia during that year.

Well, let’s investigate a little further.  Bancker died in 1869, and his collection of scientific apparatus was prepared for auction in 1871.  WorldCat lists two copies of the auction catalog: one held by the Library of Congress, and one held by the Canada Science and Technology Museum.  David Sager kindly tried to track down the copy at the Library of Congress, but it proved frustratingly elusive, so after a few months I finally contacted the Canada Science and Technology Museum to commission a copy of their copy.  They furnished me with a scan of it in September 2014, which I’ve posted online here.

bancker-catalog-title-pageThe phonautograph is listed in the auction catalog clearly and unambiguously:

630 (425/31). Scott’s Phonautograph, a very large and fine Apparatus made by R. Kœnig of Paris, for experiments in Phonics, consisting of an Oak Base 32 by 28 inches, on which are 2 Iron Supports, sustaining a Revolving Hollow Brass Cylinder, with Steel Helix Axle, mounted Diapason and Chronometer with Pointer and other accessories.
630 A.  Also a large Plaster Mortar or Insonorous Vessel, vibrating between 2 Iron Supports, together with all the necessary appointments.

The reference to a vessel made of plaster confirms beyond any doubt that Bancker owned a phonautograph of the original 1859 model.

The auction lot number is 630, while the alternative numbering I’ve shown in parentheses—and which appears in the catalog in a separate column—reportedly “has reference to a manuscript list of the contents in the cases, to aid only MR. WILLIAM McCONNELL, the Exhibitor, who, for many years, has most ably assisted in the care and arrangement of the Apparatus.”  Based on that description, Bancker had probably employed McConnell to organize, catalog, demonstrate, maintain, and repair the items in his collection.  Of course, I’d like to know more about this guy, but I haven’t had much luck so far in identifying him.  Someone by the same name is listed as a twenty-four-year-old Irish-born “machinist” in the 1860 census for Philadelphia’s tenth ward, which fits the bill as far as occupation, but he seems a bit young to have managed Bancker’s collection “for many years,” and William McConnell is a fairly common name.The “acoustics” section of the auction catalog spans pages 28-31 (lots 577-625), with more “acoustic and undulatory apparatus” on page 31 (lots 626-631), and there are a number of other interesting gadgets listed in these sections that could have had some association with the phonautograph.  One is lot 612, or McConnell’s number 425/30, immediately preceding the phonautograph as 425/31: a “Case of various Acoustic Apparatus, chiefly Ear Trumpets, Grotesque Vibrating Figures, Artificial Tympanum, Tissues, various kinds.”  The ear trumpets and artificial tympanum may well have been paraphernalia for use with the phonautograph.But what about the phonautograms Henry Morton also mentioned among the objects that the Stevens Institute had acquired from Bancker’s estate?  I suspect those comprised the following lot:

625 (425/44). A Series of 30 Acoustic Drawings, produced by Helmholtz’s Apparatus, with the use of the Human Voice.

There was no “Helmholtz’s Apparatus” capable of making “acoustic drawings…with the use of the human voice.”  But the description as written would be a perfect fit for records made by the phonautograph.  And if there were thirty of them, that would be quite a collection!

What could they have been?

It’s likely that Bancker had bought some phonautograms at the same time he bought the phonautograph.  Item 50 in Koenig’s 1859 catalog was a “collection of prints [épreuves] of every kind obtained by the preceding apparatus,” meaning the phonautograph, while item 54 comprised a tuning-fork of any desired frequency plus a phonautogram of its vibrations.  At that point, Koenig didn’t list any specific price for phonautograms, but judging from the prices he quoted later, these wouldn’t have been cheap.  In his next catalogue of 1865,[13] as item 209 on page 42, he offered a “grand collection of prints [épreuves],” divided into seven sections and accompanied by photographs of the equipment and manually plotted theoretical curves for comparison.  The contents of this “Album,” as it was known, had been displayed in London in 1862 and were specified more closely elsewhere,[14] but no copies of it are currently known to survive.  The price Koenig was asking for his “Album” in 1865 was 400 francs, comparable to the price of the phonautograph itself.  Such a cost might have been prohibitive for most interested parties at the time, but it wouldn’t have fazed Bancker, whose fire insurance business gave him money to burn.  The phonautograms Moigno displayed in Aberdeen in September 1859 represented the sounds of tuning forks, diapason pipes, and human speech.  If Bancker had ordered some sample phonautograms from Koenig in 1859, they might have featured similar content.

On the other hand, every time Bancker’s phonautograph was put to use in Philadelphia between 1859 and 1869—maybe operated on his behalf by William McConnell—it would have created a phonautogram which Bancker might have kept.  Bancker was an amateur enthusiast rather than a professional acoustician, and he was socially well-positioned, so he could conceivably have recorded just about anything or anyone he wanted, depending on the breadth of his imagination.

The auction catalog also lists some cylinders with acoustic waveforms inscribed on them:

624 (425/40). An Apparatus to explain the Undulatory Movement of Sound, being a Case 42 inches long, in which to Revolve 3 Cylinders with Undulatory Curves marked thereon.

I imagine these were theoretically constructed curves rather than recorded ones, but anything’s possible.

I’ve been focusing here on acoustic apparatus, but the auction catalog also lists some stunning treasures of other kinds.  Here I’ll mention just one, listed among an extensive collection of stereoscopic apparatus and images spanning pages 31-34 (lots 632-740), separate from the “optical” section proper:

678.  A Stereoscopic Phenakistoscope or Bioscope, with Reflectors and 2 large Circular Tableaux.

This refers to a device created by Louis Jules Duboscq to display looped animations comprised of stereoscopic photographs.[15]  Only a single artifact from Duboscq’s experiments in this direction is known to survive, as Thomas Weynants writes: “Perhaps the most challenging device for research in the Joseph Plateau collection [at Ghent University] is the Duboscq Bioscope or albumin stereo phenakistiscope disc. Unfortunately, only one disc is preserved and no apparatus is known.”  If lot 678 from the Bancker auction were to turn up today, then, it would be the world’s oldest known instrument for displaying 3D motion pictures, and it would come with two additional discs.

So what happened to all the wonderful things listed in this 1871 auction catalog?  Do we have any hope of finding them?

It’s unclear how the auction itself played out.  In an article about Bancker’s collection published some twenty years ago,[16] A. D. C. Simpson wrote that Morton bought its acoustic and optical portions in their entirety for Stevens Institute, and that the remainder of the collection was then auctioned in a sale of over 750 lots.  However, the auction catalog with its 753 lots actually seems to list the whole collection, including the acoustic and optical parts reportedly acquired by Stevens Institute, rather than being limited to the leftovers.  Regardless of specifics, Simpson speculates that the collection as a whole ended up in Morton’s custody anyway: after acquiring the optical and acoustic portions for Stevens Institute, the hypothesis is that Morton bought all the remaining items personally, and that these passed down in his family until they were finally dispersed at auction “twelve years ago,” which would have been about 1983 based on the 1995 publication date of the article.  Simpson describes a few specific items from this sale—a wedge apparatus, a pyrometer, a gyrosope, etc.—and another stray Bancker item, a Duboscq stereo-pseudoscope, came up for auction in 2006 (documented here when I first launched this post, but since taken offline). This last item was labeled in a way that, if typical, would make Bancker artifacts easy to identify as such:

bancker-artifact-label(Note: a sundial from Bancker’s collection, auctioned here, has a similar label.)

Morton seems to have had the financial means to buy these odds and ends of Bancker’s collection himself if he wanted to keep it intact.  As Simpson writes:

The source of Morton’s wealth was patent litigation, in which he was frequently called as an expert witness.  The proceeds from this very profitable work were often donated to the Stevens Institute: he presented workshops, laboratories and apparatus, funded new buildings, endowed chairs and even a retirement fund for his professors.[17]

Of course, it was during one of these lucrative appearances as an expert witness during 1896 that Morton had given the deposition I’d stumbled across in the Edison Papers.

So the Bancker collection seems to have been divided into two parts as of 1871:

  • The complete optical and acoustic parts, including the 1859 phonautograph, which were formally acquired for the Stevens Institute.  None of the items in these categories appears ever to have come up for sale or to have surfaced elsewhere.
  • The rest of the collection, including stereoscopic paraphernalia, which entered private hands—likely Henry Morton’s—and remained together until about 1983, when it was dispersed at auction.  For better or worse, the Duboscq bioscope would have fallen into this category.

Of the acoustic part of Bancker’s collection, the Stevens Institute annual catalog for 1875 stated:

The apparatus in this division includes as one item the entire collection on this subject of the late Charles N. Bancker, of Philadelphia, and numbers among its objects numerous sets of organ pipes and tuning forks, of every material, adapted to illustrate the various laws of sound, and also sonometers, sirens, resonators, vibrating rods of various material, Schaffgotsch’s apparatus, manometric flame apparatus, Scott’s phonautograph, and, in fact, an unusually complete collection of every appliance that can be made useful in the illustration or study of the subject of Acoustics.[18]

The Bancker collection continued to be played up in publicity for the Stevens Institute for a few years, but by the time Henry Morton gave his deposition in 1896, it was no longer being promoted and was presumably considered out of date.  The last reference I’ve seen to it based on living memory appears in a memorial volume for Morton published in 1905, after his death in 1902:

THAT the plan for the course of study might be carried out in the most efficient manner, no effort was spared in securing a complete equipment of apparatus to exemplify the teaching of the theoretical part of the course.

The equipment of the Physical Laboratory was unusually complete, and, it is believed, second to none in the country at that time.  It included…the then famous collection of optical instruments purchased from the estate of Charles N. Bancker, of Philadelphia.  This latter collection covered the whole range of optical discovery, and was said by Abbé Moigno (“Cosmos,” 1859, p. 557) to be “the most numerous and brilliant that exists in the world.”[19]

This account is written in the past tense, and doesn’t confirm that anything actually remained at the Stevens Institute as of 1905.  However, some of Bancker’s apparatus did indeed remain there long into the twentieth century, as Simpson observes in an endnote:

[A]ll the items so far traced to Bancker’s cabinet, including some items which Deborah Jean Warner of the Smithsonian Institution has now been able to locate at the Stevens Institute, can be identified with entries in the 1871 sale catalogue.[20]

I don’t know how many Bancker items Deborah Jean Warner was able to locate, or which ones they were.  But the fact that no artifacts from the main optical and acoustic portions of the auction catalog have surfaced anywhere else suggests to me that they could all have remained safely together at the Stevens Institute up to the present time, including the 1859 phonautograph.  (Since they weren’t dispersed, the only other possibilities I can think of are that nearly everything was destroyed, or that the collection was sold or transferred as a whole; but in either case, there would presumably be some record of this having happened.)

But it’s one thing to determine that there could be an 1859 phonautograph and phonautograms at the Stevens Institute of Technology, and quite another to go about trying to find them.

Back in 2014, I found contact information for Leah Loscutoff, the Archives and Special Collections Librarian at the Stevens Institute, and wrote to her to try to find out whether the phonautograph and records from Morton’s era were still there.  She replied: “We don’t have anything cataloged with that description, but I will need to dig further and see if I can find any references to this collection.”  At that point, I sent her some additional details from the auction catalog, which I’d tracked down since I’d first written to her, and my First Sounds colleague David Giovannoni—who lives just four hours’ drive from the Stevens Institute—also emailed to offer his help in searching for the phonautograms.  She politely wrote back to say she still hadn’t found evidence of the collection being there but was still looking, and provided some helpful context:

Stevens has recently taken on the large task of cataloging and inventorying the entire massive collection that exists here. Some of the collections and historical artifacts have not always been held in the library, where we would have more intellectual and physical control….  There are still many items that need to be identified, so this request might take some more time.  Thanks again for your patience.
Other sources confirm the daunting complexity of the situation.  In an article from 2011 about the Stevens Institute’s archives and special collections, the previous archivist Adam Winger had described the challenges of taking stock of the holdings there as follows:
“We have 1 dedicated archive room and 3 exhibit rooms that contain artwork and objects. The library collections also are exhibited in several houses and educational building across campus,” he continues, “I am in the process of trying to locate all of the materials belonging to the library.” The day I visited Adam, he received a delivery of furniture from the President’s mansion for storage in the library because the Institute no longer has a museum. All told, the holdings include objects, artwork, manuscripts, rare books, printed materials, maps, audio materials, and visual materials.[21]

So that’s where thinks now stand.  The Stevens Institute of Technology is likely home to the world’s oldest surviving phonautograph and a cache of phonautograms on a par with those recently recognized by UNESCO as treasures of world documentary heritage.  If they could be found within the next year, the discovery would greatly enrich the planned commemoration of the bicentennial of Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville’s birth on April 25, 1817.  But as of this writing, that’s only eleven months away.

In the meantime, I’ve managed to pick up a small piece of Charles Bancker ephemera for my own collection: one of his engraved bookplates.  Bancker’s impressive library was auctioned in December 1869 and contained a large number of scientific works that complemented his “cabinet of science,” making my bookplate more closely relevant to the phonautograph than, say, a stock certificate for the Franklin Fire Insurance Company would have been.  So, in closing, I’d like to share this nice little relic of the first person in America to own either a sound-recording instrument or a “record collection”:



1. American Graphophone Company v. U.S. Phonograph Company et al., Defendant’s Testimony, pp. 671-2, Thomas Edison Papers [QP001], TAED QP001585 (online here and here); TAEM 116:366.

2. “Nouvelles de la Semaine,” Cosmos: revue encyclopédique hebdomadaire des progrès des sciences et de leurs applications aux arts et à l’industrie  14 (May 20, 1859), 557-558, online here.

3. “Experiments on Quality of Sound,” Journal of the Franklin Institute 35:6 (June 1858), 407-408, online here.

4. Cosmos 11 (25 Dec. 1857), pp. 703-5, online here.

5. “About nine months ago, the Abbé Moigno introduced him to one of his protégés, M. R. Kœnig, who successfully constructed the acoustic apparatus by means of which the diagrams presented to Her Majesty were produced.”  The Literary Gazette n.s. 3:68 (15 Oct. 1859): 383-4, online here.

6. Catalogue des principaux appareils d’acoustique qui se fabriquent chez Rudolph Kœnig, à Paris (Paris: Bailly, Divry et Co., 1859), online here, with select pages available in higher quality here.

7. Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville, Le problème de la parole s’écrivant elle-même, First Sounds Facsmile Series No. 8, online here, p. 76.

8. “Faits de Science,” Cosmos 15 (16 Dec. 1859): 677-79, at 677, online here.

9. W. M. Logeman, “Phonographie,” Album der Natuur, ed. P. Harting, D. Lubach, W. M. Logeman; Niewe Reeks (1860), (Groningen: De Erven C. M. van Bolhuis Hoitsema, 1860), pp. 247-251, at 249, online here.

10. Karl Vierordt, Grundriss der Physiologie des Menschen (Frankfurt am Main: Meidinger Sohn  & Comp., 1860), 255, online here.

11. Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville, Brevet d’Invention (1857) and Certificat d”addition (1859), First Sounds Facsimile Series No. 2,, online here, p. 9; A. Ganot, Traité élémentaire de physique expérimentale et appliquée et de meteorologie, 9th Ed. (Paris: chez l’auteur-éditeur, 1860), p. 208; Joh. Müller, Lehrbuch der Physik und Meteorologie (Braunschweig: Friedrich Vieweg und Sohn, 1862), Vol. 1, p. 465; Fr. Jos. Pisko, Die neueren Apparate der Akustik (Wien: Carl Gerold’s Sohn, 1865)p. 73, online here,  which is derived from an image in P.-A. Daguin, Traité élémentaire de physique théorique et expérimentale, 2 vols., vol. 1 (Toulouse: E. Privat, 1861) p. 496, online here.

12. “Faits de Science,” Cosmos 15 (16 Dec. 1859): 677-79, at 679, online here.  This was probably a truncated octagonal pyramid with a plastered interior, as described and pictured in Le Monde Illustré, April 6, 1878.  For the French text, see here; and for a later print of the accompanying image, see here.

13. Catalogue des appareils construits par Rudolph Kœnig (Paris: 1865), online here.

14. Fr. Jos. Pisko, Die neueren Apparate der Akustik (Wien: Carl Gerold’s Sohn, 1865)p. 93, online here; Rudolph Kœnig, Quelques Expériences d’Acoustique (Paris: A. Lahure, 1882), p. 1, online here.

15. See a contemporaneous account in A. Claudet, “On Moving Photographic Figures, illustrating some Phenomena of Vision connected with the combination of the Stereoscppe and the Phenakistoscope by means of Photography,” Philosophical Magazine 30 (October 1865), 271-276, online here.

16. A. D. C. Simpson, “‘La plus brillante collection qui existe au monde’: a lost American collection of the nineteenth century,” Journal of the History of Collections 7:2 (1995): 187-96.

17. Simpson, op cit., p. 193.

18. Annual Announcement of the Stevens Institute of Technology (Hoboken, N. J., 1875), pp. 17-18, online here.

19. Franklin de Ronde Furman, ed., Morton Memorial: A History of the Stevens Institute of Technology (Hoboken, N. J.: Stevens Institute of Technology, 1905), p. 7, online here.

20. Simpson, op cit., p. 193.

21. Deb Schiff, “Tour of Special Collections and Archives at S.C. Williams Library at Stevens Institute of Technology,” Here and There, February 14, 2011, online here.

2 thoughts on “The First Phonautograph in America (1859)

  1. I just found your site yesterday and have barely scratched the surface (so to speak!). I found this on a site called Cult of Weird, which I realize doesn’t sound very promising. Badly-written and repetitive, but who knows?:

    ” In 1874 Alexander Graham Bell created his version of a phonautograph using the ear and part of a skull of a dead man obtained by an associate. Bell attached a recording stylus to the ear to inscribe a line on a smoked-glass plate. When he shouted into the dead man’s ear, the stylus recorded his speech on the glass.

    A mouthpiece funneled the sound of Bell’s voice to an eardrum from a dead body. His voice created sound waves that caused the inner ear bones to vibrate. A piece of straw – attached at one end to the bones – traced the pattern of the vibrations onto a charcoal-coated glass plate moving under the straw’s tip. The straw’s tracings recorded each sound as a series of waves. As Bell’s voice changed pitch, the speed of vibrations changed and so did the pattern’s shape.

    Bell originally thought his machine might help deaf students learn to speak by allowing them to match the tracings of their spoken words to those made by people who could hear. The idea for the telephone came from his realization that if you could use sound to get an electrical current to vibrate – just like the piece of straw – then you could send speech as far and fast as electricity could travel.

    Are there any remaining copies of this recording?”

    Just a phonautographic urban myth? Or did someone (maybe not Bell) actually experiment with this technology? I’d appreciate your thoughts.

  2. Pingback: My Fiftieth Griffonage-Dot-Com Blog Post | Griffonage-Dot-Com

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