Phonozoic Text Archive, Document 086


"The Future of the Phonograph," Literary Digest 21:2 (No. 534), July 14, 1900, p. 43.

THE phonograph is at present hardly more than a toy, but a great future lies before it. According to M. L. Azoulay, who writes in the Revue Scientifique (Paris, June 9), on "The New Era of Sounds and Noises," the fixation of sounds by the phonograph is about to work in all human fields of activity and knowledge a revolution as great as that produced by the fixation of luminous images in photography. M. Azoulay's paper, which was first read before the Paris Anthropological Society on May 3 last, runs in part as follows:

"Before the appearance of photography, and just after its invention, no one could have conjectured how useful and necessary it would become to the progress of learning and to human welfare to be able to compare and analyze luminous images, fixed for an indefinite period and susceptible of being viewed at will. No one could have conceived how the visual powers of man would be aided by such a discovery, how many unknown regions would be opened, and how many new occupations would become dependent on it.

"At present we are in this same condition, as far as sounds are concerned. It is generally assumed that we have no means of preserving a record, audible at will, of a sound or noise produced in nature, either by a living being or by a machine. All that science might do with noises and complex sounds in the way of comparison at intervals more or less removed from their origin, or under varied conditions of production, together with all the theoretical and practical conclusions that might be drawn from these comparisons, is supposed to be as yet impossible. Thus an immense world remains closed to human intelligence and labor--a world full of new discoveries, conceptions, and industries. Sounds and noises now pass away as soon as produced, leaving only a trace in man's already overloaded memory.

"And nevertheless we already possess the instrument--the phonograph--that has the power to record, preserve, and reproduce sounds--the absolute elements at the base of every science."

The phonograph, M. Azoulay goes on to say, is now only a toy, and is made for amusement, not with the accuracy and durability of an instrument of precision. But this, he reminds us, is always the lot of a new instrument or method. Progress, as the author of "Flame, Electricity, and the Camera" has reminded us, is more rapid as civilization advances. It need not take so long to develop the phonograph from toy to scientific instrument as it took to develop the camera, for instance. That every science has been neglected on its acoustic side for lack of such an instrument, M. Azoulay asserts in unqualified terms. He says:

"In meteorology, hydraulics, heat, electricity, and mechanics, the records of sounds and noises will be of great aid in the easier comprehension and the fuller study of these sciences. And we even believe that owing to the possibility of fixing the sounds that accompany phenomena studied in physics and other sciences, so that they may be studied, compared with the results of other methods of examination, and reproduced experimentally, we may create methods of acoustical analysis, just as we have already created methods of optical, graphical analysis, etc., thus controlling, completing, or supplementing these by the new phonographic methods."

Illustrations of the uses to which such methods might be put are given at length by the author. In practical mechanics they will aid in studying the working and the defects of machinery; in natural history, in investigating the emotions of animals, the effects of environment, etc.; in medicine they can record, for instance, the speech of persons suffering from nervous disease, the different forms of cough and various internal sounds, normal or pathological, as well as facilitating the study of the evolution of acoustic phenomena in one or more persons, in sickness or in health. Says the writer:

"Really it seems useless to pass in review all the sciences, arts, and industries susceptible of profiting by the fixation and reproduction of voices, sounds, and noises by the phonograph. Each, according to his occupation, can, upon reflection, devise a hundred applications. I will dwell only on two subjects that are specially related to this use of the phonograph--linguistics and the teaching of foreign languages."

The most important immediate use of the phonographic record, M. Azoulay goes on to say, is in the preservation of present pronunciation in languages, dialects, and patois. The preservation of written records, such as inscriptions, has its place, but the examination of such records is like "the work of an anatomist on a corpse." The life of a language is in its spoken forms, and this the phonograph can keep for us. What would we not give to have a few records of the spoken tongues of the ancient Greeks and Romans? The phonograph will enable the student of language to investigate the relationships of tongues and dialects and their evolution in races and individuals, with a thoroughness that would be otherwise impossible, especially if accompanied by the photographic study of the vocal organs. More than this, it will contribute directly to facilitate the practical study of modern languages, furnishing an ever-present standard of pronunciation. At the close of his article M. Azoulay recommends the establishment of phonographic museums. He says.

"I am certain that some day or other societies, or even governments themselves, will undertake, with the aid of travelers, of special commissions, and of international exchanges, acquisitions, and donations, the preservation in phonographic museums of specimens of foreign languages and especially of patois, dialect, and variant pronunciations in different parts of their domain.

"This idea of phonographic archives or museums must be extended to all that the phonograph is susceptible of recording, preserving, and reproducing: words, singing, instrumental music, and the acoustic phenomena of animals, nature, industry, etc. We shall soon see, under either individual or national initiative, the erection of phonographic museums of all kinds, supplementing the information given by our present libraries and art galleries.

"It is also to be hoped that the innumerable applications of this wonderful recording instrument . . . will cause the instrument itself to be perfected and combined with other devices for new research and uses. It is especially to be hoped that these uses will attract a great number of investigators, and will thus aid in increasing the well-being, as well as the moral and intellectual inheritance of man."

Notes at the end of M. Azoulay's article state that after the Anthropological Society had heard his paper, the members voted to establish at once such a museum as that outlined by the author, appointing as a committee for the purpose M. Azoulay himself and M. Vinson. Later, on June 2, the Vienna Academy of Sciences voted to form a similar phonographic collection, and the idea will doubtless commend itself to learned bodies in all parts of the world. -- Translation made for THE LITERARY DIGEST.