'Vinyl Book' was written in 2021 and published by POLVINYL in 2023. It was created in Polish. An edition of 1,000 copies is already sold out. I am translating it into English especially for you. I would like you to get to know the vinyl record as I see (hear) it. It is a wonderful invention that has influenced the development of human civilisation like no other in the world of music. I mean positively, because streaming has influenced just as much, but it has done more harm than good.

Here is another part of the adventure of the vinyl record. We begin with prehistory. And you can read the first part here: Part I

Chapter I Part II


The history of the vinyl record wouldn't be as fascinating if it weren't for the stories of people who contributed to its creation and development. As a result of their efforts, vinyl records dominated the physical media market. For nearly 100 years, they marched triumphantly through the evolution of music, its genres, methods of creation, recording, and distribution. In the overwhelming majority of cases, the work of artists and sound engineers ended up on the black disc. This was the case at least until 1984, when the invention of the CD slowly began to take away the "noble medium's" primacy. However, to everyone's surprise, vinyl had the last word – proof of which is this very book you hold in your hands.

To our surprise, it was not musical artists who laid the foundations of the phonographic market. Instead, it was primarily inventors, visionaries, scientists, and businessmen, often with musical education and a love for music. Many scientists engaged in acoustics, music theory, sound, and the propagation of sound waves. At the turn of the 19th century, human minds were working at full capacity, constantly inventing devices, machines, or processes that amazed the world. Today, we live in a similar era, where inventors and visionaries of the new Internet are creating a new space for music. NFT files, tokenization, DAOs (decentralized autonomous organizations) – fan communities based on tokens. It's astonishing that music is always where something important is happening.

Jimi Hendrix once said:


Not only did Bell compete with Edison: The same was true for sound recording – at least several teams worked on it. Inventors, using their own funds or those of influential investors, created various devices. Some were developed intentionally, others by accident. But two, in my opinion, key inventors who contributed to making breakthrough discoveries in the field of first recording and then playing back sound, deserve special attention.

Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville

What a fascinating figure the French typesetter must have been, leaning over the image of a human ear he stumbled upon while browsing engravings intended for Professor F. A. Longet's physiology textbook.

In 1853, when the first kerosene lamp was lit in the window of a pharmacy in Lviv, Mr. Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville - moved by what he saw in the picture - wanted to build a "mechanical ear." It took him four years to create a prototype, which he patented under the name of the phonautograph.

The device, reminiscent of Thomas Edison's later invention, was equipped with a tube and membrane. The sound vibrated the membrane, which transferred the vibrations to a stylus. The stylus itself was made of pig's bristle. The mentioned stylus left a trace on a rotating cylinder, which was most often covered with soot, allowing the observation of the sound trace.

Fascinated by his own invention, Édouard-Léon Scott left behind a mute "playlist" of several dozen images depicting the recording of air wave vibrations set in motion by his voice.

The works of Mr. de Martinville were discovered and played back using digital conversion only in 2008. The oldest reproduced fragment is a French folk song titled "Au Claire de la Lune," or "By the Light of the Moon" – dated April 9, 1860. His voice waited in silence for 160 years before it could sound, although it was never Édouard-Léon's intention.

I imagine this man at his daily work, when, after hours, he sits down to construct a device that would eventually revolutionize the lives of many generations of people listening to music. Did he even think about it?

Did his contemporaries – wife, family, or friends – support him in his dream? Or maybe the kids were screaming over his head and distracting him with current affairs? We will never know because there are no traces of these facts, but he left behind something he could never have expected: the image of his voice. Dozens of pages with the image of the sounds he recorded using the phonautograph.

These mute pages spoke after more than a century and a half, revealing to us a part of the world that no longer exists. These notes are like artifacts – even today, many people think of vinyls in this way, as artifacts. De Martinville, whom we can hear from these reconstructions, was last heard at the end of the 19th century. Isn't that exciting?

Reproductions of these recordings are available on the website thanks to the organization that was involved in their playback.

This holds the great mystery of sound, making it so intriguing. It's interesting that Édouard-Léon worked only on recording the sound wave, not on playing it back.

Did you know that a normal record can be "played" by spinning it on top of a pencil by placing the edge of a rolled up banknote in the groove? Of course, this is more like extracting some sound than actually playing it, as it requires the correct speed of rotation and amplification of the signal, but the fact is that if there was no electricity, we would still be able to listen to music from vinyls.

So why did de Martinville record his voice? What was it for? Even though the recorded sound image could not be played back, his "engravings" were considered by the scientific society of the time to be accurate enough to classify the phonautograph as a laboratory instrument, contributing to the further development of acoustics. I get the impression that the beginning of the history of sound recording is an avalanche of seemingly random events that over time began to come together into a whole.

I like to use the term "time machines" in reference to vinyl records. I think the history of the Parisian typesetter and the story of his invention explain exactly what I mean.

VINYL BOOK (POLVINYL, 2022, paper, hard back)

Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville probably imagined many applications for his invention, but his vision was guided by the idea of recording on paper what is ephemeral. In his notes, he expressed the following words: "Will we manage to preserve for future generations certain features of the diction of those outstanding, great actors who die and leave no trace behind?". Here, my assumptions are confirmed that the attempt to preserve the known reality, even just a modest fragment of it, like diction or accent, was at the heart of this invention. Thus, the phonautograph was intended to serve: to protect, to transmit the legacy of culture and language. Recording the image of sound waves, their examination and description, were meant to solidify what is elusive in the acoustic sphere of that time, both aesthetically and scientifically.

It's amusing that in the case of de Martinville, as well as later Edison, some of the first voice recordings were songs. This is a testament to how important songs and music in general have been and continue to be in our lives.

It is a fact that the first attempts at recording voices were not (yet) associated with entertainment. It was only much later that this was used on a mass scale thanks to Mr. Berliner, whom I will also mention a few words about later.

To be continued!

previous: Part I