What is the oldest audio recording of an expletive?

Mary had a little lamb, it's fleece was green as grass... (photo by Metro Centric - CC-BY)

During the 1800s, inventors were frantically working to develop reliable methods of recording sound. The first sound ever recorded, in 1860, comprised a few bars of the French traditional song Au clair de la lune. The singer never heard her recording—because at that time only a recording device had been developed—but thanks to the wonders of modern technology we are able to listen to her recording.

Over the following decades, rival inventors experimented with a wide range of recording media made from wax, paper, soot, paraffin, celluloid or glass. On 11 March 1885, inventors Sumner Tainter and H G Rogers were experimenting with optical recording onto a glass plate. We think they used a diaphragm connected to a stylus which altered the apeture of a slit through which light was shone, to make a lighter or darker mark in response to the sound waves.

Much of the sound recorded onto their disk is unclear, especially the first few words and the last few words. What we do hear is this:

??? by inventors Sumner Tainter and H G Rogers. It’s the eleventh day of March, eighteen hundred and eighty five. [trilled “R”]. How is this for height? Mary had a little lamb, and its fleece was black as soot, and wherever Mary went … Oh, fuck! … [trilled “R”] Mary had a little lamb, and its fleece was black as soot, and wherever Mary went, the little lamb was sure to go. How is this for height? Over ???

The trilled “R”s and the phrase “How is this for height (or high)” were common sound-check phrases of the era, as was the recitation of “Mary Had a Little Lamb”.

Instead of the usual fleece as “white as snow” this sheep has one as “black as soot”. That’s a common variation, although it’s usually followed by “And everywhere that Mary went, its sooty foot it put”. Some people are not convinced that the words recited are “black as soot”, but it sounds like that to me.

We know (from the speed at which this recording was made) that the device was stopped after the expletive then re-started for the second reading of “Mary Had a Little Lamb”. It seems to me that the second recording is a little louder and more clear. What follows is my interpretation:

During the first part of the recording, the speaker realised that something wasn’t set correctly. Perhaps he intended to test some improvement, then realised that it wasn’t activated. After uttering the expletive he shut down the recorder, altered its configuration, and started it up again for the second reading.

David Giovannoni has an alternative interpretation here. On David’s page you can listen to this historic sound file, and see whether you agree with the transcription above.

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