Yes, you read that right: 1860, seventeen years before Thomas Edison received his phonograph patent. The catch here is that the recording, in the form of a phonautogram, was never intended for playback. It's a visual record of sound, made by a device called a phonautograph. Here's how the Times describes the phonautograph, which is illustrated in the article:
[The] device had a barrel-shaped horn attached to a stylus, which etched sound waves onto sheets of paper blackened by smoke from an oil lamp. The recordings were not intended for listening; the idea of audio playback had not been conceived. Rather, Scott sought to create a paper record of human speech that could later be deciphered.Scientists from Lawrence Berkeley Labs figured out how to interpret the sounds thus recorded - a fragment of the song "Au Claire de la Lune." The article includes an mp3 version of the phonautogram, which is about on par with the Mapleson cylinders for audio quality, as well as a perfectly lovely 1931 rendition by an unidentified soprano.
The oldest phonautograms known are from 1853 and 1854!
If you're interested in old recordings - and who isn't? - the Association for Recorded Sound Collections is having its annual convention at Stanford this year, starting, uh, today - and there will be a session devoted to the phonautograph and phonautograms. I wish someone had told me about this a month ago, because I would have planned to attend some of the sessions.
In any event, read, and enjoy, the thrilling detective story that is the Times article.