(Nadar, 1864)

I was amusing myself, daydreaming some fifteen years ago, writing in an unknown corner that nothing defies man, and that one of these days it will come to pass that someone will present us with the daguerreotype of sound — the phonograph — something like a box within which melodies would be fixed and retained, the way the camera seizes and fixes images. To such an effect that a family, I imagine, finding itself prevented from attending the opening of a Force del destino or an Afrique, or whatever, would only have to delegate one of its members, armed with the phonograph in question, to go there. And upon his return: ‘How was the overture?’ ‘Like this!’ ‘Too fast?’ ‘There!’ ‘And the quintet?’ ‘Don’t you think the tenor screeches a bit?’

Do not laugh so fast! What I dreamed, me, ignorant man, man of imagination, a man of science discovered five or six years later…It was sound waves, recorded (graphed by the learned Mr. Lissajoux) – Harmony shown to be a science as rigorously exact as geometry!…

If I dream, let me dream again – I defy you to wake me up! Let me contemplate the air furrowed by aisles…Man rushes to all parts of the world, quick as electricity, and glides and descends like a bird to the desired place.


The journalist and caricaturist Gaspard-Felix Tournachon, pen-name Nadar, is now best known for his pioneering work in photography. A self-described dreamer, Nadar delighted in using existing technologies in new ways, and his adventuresome spirit inspired friend and contemporary Jules Verne to develop characters such as space-traveler Ardan in From the Earth to the Moon. In histories of sound recording, Nadar often receives mention as a visionary who anticipated the invention of the phonograph. Nadar himself is partly responsible for this: in his autobiographical essay “My Life as a Photographer,” published in 1900, he claimed credit for predicting the phonograph “thirty years before anyone else dreamed of it” and “even conferring on it its name.” Yet it is clear from his earlier memoire that Nadar had imagined an instrument very different from the one Edison called a phonograph in 1877. For Nadar, the phonograph would record pictures of sounds – a dream he believed realized already in 1864 by Jules Lissajous, who visualized sound waves by reflecting light off mirrors attached to tuning forks onto a screen (though without capturing the resulting images). Nadar’s is thus a case of later technologies overwriting earlier fantasies, erasing their particular contours and alternative implications. In the future Nadar once imagined, musical performances were recorded as wavy lines in which qualities such as tempo and tone could later be read.
Text: F. Nadar, Les Mémoires du géant (Paris: Dentu, 1864), p. 271-73
Images: Lissajous apparatus from John Tyndall, Sound (London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1867), p. 267; caricature of Nadar