Edison's Files Reveal the Only Known Voice Recording of Someone Born in the 18th Century

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Many of the most significant moments of the 20th century are written in our brains not as naked text but as audio files. Who can think of Neil Armstrong words upon moon landing or Kennedy's exhortation to ask what we can do for our country without hearing the crackly recordings of their voices? Who can look at pictures of Nazi rallies without hearing the clipped German of Hitler?

The soundtrack of history goes silent sometime in the late 19th century. We have no sound to attach to the great figures of those earlier times. But one voice thought lost has now been recovered, officials at the Thomas Edison Historical Park told the The New York Times yesterday. Sound historians Patrick Feaster and Stephan Puille have managed to pull the sound of Otto von Bismarck, the first chancellor of the German Empire, off of a century-old wax cylinder onto which it had been recorded on October 7, 1889. Additionally, they have also recovered audio from two cylinders holding the voice of German military strategist Helmuth von Moltke, who was nearly 90 at the time. According to Puille, "These are the only recordings of a person born in the eighteenth century which are still audible today." (Von Moltke was born in 1800, so he sneaks in just under the line.)

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Cylinder 93952, which silently preserved the sound of Bismarck's voice for more than a century. Listen to the recording here. NPS

The Otto von Bismarck Foundation of Germany has a record of a Bismarck recording, but, having searched for it for years, had given up hope of finding it. The wax cylinder, as it turned out, was stored in a box of 17 such cylinders that had been found in a cabinet in Edison's New Jersey home in 1957, but scientists did not have the right tools to play the sounds locked inside. Chaz Firestone profiled Feaster, and glossed his method, here in The Atlantic:

To free the recording's voice, Feaster commissioned a high-resolution scan from the Library of Congress and then brought out the big guns: An experimental method he developed on his own by co-opting software that converts bands of varying width into playable sound, reverse engineering the age-old practice of drawing and scratching on a film soundtrack to create sound for animation. Optical film soundtracks vary a sound's specified amplitude by letting in more or less light, so Feaster edits the grooves and traces he wants to play back to make them look like optical film soundtracks, which the software easily converts into sound.

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Wangemann postcard to Edison, from Berlin, 1890. NPS

It wasn't until last year that Feaster and Puille figured out that one of the cylinders contained the lost Bismarck recording. The box bore one clue: It was labeled "Wangemann. Edison." -- a reference to Theo Wangemann's, the world's first-ever professional sound recordist, who, in 1889 and 1890, traveled around Europe at Edison's behest to exhibit the new recording technology. Edison would send him blank cylinders -- 2,400 and 4,000 of them during the duration of his trip -- on which to record music, voices, and possibly plays as well.

When the researchers first heard the Bismarck recording, they did not know what it was. As the Times reports:

Mr. Puille, the sound historian in Berlin, said it was not easy to identify Bismarck's voice. But after he deciphered a reference to Friedrichsruh, Bismarck's estate, in the announcement of one of the cylinders, "I immediately knew that I was on the right track," he continued in an e-mail message.

"Bismarck's name is not mentioned in the recording, but I had collected all available information about his cylinder in the contemporary press, and the content of the cylinder matched perfectly."

He added, "No doubt this find is the culmination of my researcher's life."

On the cylinder, Bismarck recites bits of poetry in English, German, French, and Latin. (A complete transcription is available here.) 

Many of the recordings have been damaged over the years, and the quality is not wonderful. But the recordings are a reminder of the utter uniqueness of our own time, when documentation -- audio, visual, textual -- is ubiquitous, and the voices of our leaders are replayed over and over again.

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Theo Wangemann's phonograph. Stuart H. Miller/NPS.

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Rebecca J. Rosen is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Business Channel. She was previously an associate editor at The Wilson Quarterly.

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