Thomas Edison invented the phonograph in 1877. For years the phonograph cylinder recordings of Handel's choral music made at The Crystal Palace in London on June 29, 1888, were thought to be the oldest known surviving musical recordings. However, scientists have now played the sounds of a French folk song that was "recorded" in 1860, long before Edison ever conceived the phonograph.
Frenchman Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville, a Parisian typesetter and tinkerer, invented the phonautogram and patented it on April 9, 1860. It was never intended to play back music; the phonautogram simply scratched waveforms of sounds on paper. The inventor used it simply to show that sounds were made of waves. He wanted to visually display those waves, and that is all the phonautogram did: it recorded squiggly lines onto sheets of paper blackened by smoke from an oil lamp. It is believed that the inventor's daughter made the "recording" that was stored in the French patent office, along with the patent application. The inventor apparently never devised any method of playing the sounds that had been recorded on paper.
One hundred forty-eight years later, scientists realized that the scratches on paper were indeed sound waves that could be converted back to audio by modern electronics. Scientists at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, California, applied optical imaging and a “virtual stylus” to high-resolution scans of the phonautogram.
The April 1860 phonautogram produces the sound of an anonymous vocalist, probably female, along with a hissing, crackling background din. The inventor's daughter is believed to be the vocalist, although there is no proof. The voice, muffled but audible, sings, “Au clair de la lune, Pierrot répondit” in a lilting 11-note melody — a ghostly tune, drifting out of the sonic murk.
Scott’s 1860 phonautogram was made 17 years before Edison received a patent for the phonograph and 28 years before an Edison associate captured a snippet of a Handel oratorio on a wax cylinder, a recording that until now was widely regarded by experts as the oldest that could be played back.
There is no evidence that Edison drew on knowledge of Scott’s work to create his phonograph, and he retains the distinction of being the first to reproduce sound.
You can listen to the 148-year-old "recording" at http://tinyurl.com/6qe6tf.
When I listened to it, I found it to be barely discernible. Perhaps you'll hear something that I didn't.