New Life for Old Voices at Thomas Edison National Historical Park

Theo Wangemann in the Edison Laboratory Music Room, circa May 1905. NPS Photo.

Until recently, no one alive today had ever heard the recorded voice of someone born in the eighteenth century. That's now changed, thanks to some recent technological wizardry on an old box of unique wax recordings housed at Thomas Edison National Historical Park.

The wax cylinders were found in a damaged wooden box decades ago in the library of the Edison Laboratory. They were first cataloged by museum curators in 1957, but the items didn't look especially promising. Curators noted the box contained 17 unlabeled brown wax cylinders in fair and poor condition; several were broken and had large pieces missing.

In 2005 the National Park Service completed a multi-year project to individually catalog every historic sound recording in the museum collection. It was a daunting task—the park houses approximately 28,000 disc phonograph records, 11,000 cylinder phonograph records, and 9800 disc metal molds—and that's not all. The Edison Archive also includes an estimated five million documents, 10,000 rare books, 3000 laboratory notebooks and 60,000 photographic images.

Given those numbers, it's no surprise it's taken the staff a while to get around to the 17 wax cylinders in question, and there was no particular reason to get unduly excited about the contents of that old wooden box. No title list or other identification survived with the recordings, so the subject matter could not be identified unless a way could be found to retrieve the sounds stored away in the wax.

A key step occurred in March 2010 when the Friends of Thomas Edison NHP purchased equipment and consultant services needed to modernize the park's audio preservation transfer workstation. Using that equipment in 2011, the park's Curator of Sound Recordings digitized 12 of the 17 cylinders using a French-made Archeophone cylinder playback machine, saving the audio as Broadcast Wave Format files.

Five of the cylinders could not be digitized due to their condition, but once the audio on the remaining ones could be heard, historians Stephan Puille and Patrick Feaster identified the sounds. The results proved to be quite a find.

The recordings turned out to include the work of Theo Wangemann, considered the world's first professional sound recordist—a person whose primary job was to coordinate musical recording sessions and to develop improved methods of capturing musical performances.

Theo Wangeman's name isn't well-known today, but he can claim his own place in history. Entrusted by Thomas Edison with the task of applying the newly developed wax cylinder phonograph technology to music, Wangeman oversaw the first regular production of pre-recorded cylinders at the Edison Laboratory in West Orange, New Jersey. That work, in 1888 and 1889, is considered the birth of the American musical recording industry.

Later in 1889 Wangemann headed to Europe on another assignment: introduce Edison's invention to continental Europe. While there, he also created some recordings that have unusual historical value today.

The recently digitized cylinders from that trip include the voices of German historical figures Otto von Bismarck and Helmuth von Moltke, along with several performances by musicians of the period. A park spokesperson notes that the von Moltke cylinders represent the only known "working" recordings of voices of someone born in the eighteenth century. (That time threshold was a close call: von Moltke was born in 1800, and by most definitions the eighteenth century includes the period from 1701 through 1800.)

If you'd like to listen to the new versions of these old voices and music, you don't need a time machine, or a trip to West Orange, New Jersey. You can access them via the park website, which also includes links to a number of other historic recordings from the Edison archives.

The webpage about the Wangeman recordings includes a combination translation and transcription of the dialogue from German to English—but don't expect to hear the same crystal-clear audio in surround sound that we've become accustomed to today!

The choice of text for one of the recordings made by Helmuth Karl Bernhard von Moltke on October 21, 1889, has proven to be especially ironic, given the recent resurrection of the contents of that old wax cylinder:

"This newest invention of Mister Edison is indeed astonishing. The phonograph makes it possible for a man who has already rested long in the grave once again to raise his voice and greet the present."

Welcome to 2012, Herr von Moltke.