For the first time, 21st-century audiences are able to hear the voice of Otto von Bismarck, one of the 19th century's most important figures.
The National Park Service announced this week that the German chancellor's voice has been identified among those found on a dozen recorded wax cylinders, each more than 120 years old, that were once stored near Thomas Edison's cot in his West Orange, N.J., lab. They include music and dignitaries, including the voice of the only person born in the 18th century believed to be available on a recording.
The trove includes Bismarck's voice reciting songs and imploring his son to live morally and eat and drink in moderation.
"In the 18th century, the human voice was described as one of the most noble capacities of human beings," Stephan Puille, the German researcher who identified Bismarck's voice, said in an email. "Bismarck is no longer mute. I think his voice allows a new access to him.
"Sound is three-dimensional. Heretofore we only knew Bismarck from pictures and drawings. Now we know him a little better."
The people who study and collect early recordings knew they had been made, but did not know they still existed.
"Most early recordings I have read about had not survived," said Patrick Feaster, an Indiana University scholar who also helped crack the mystery of what was on the cylinders.
The recordings were made in 1889 and 1890 by Theo Wangemann, whom Edison sent to supervise the use of the Edison Phonograph Works machines on display at the Paris World's Fair in 1889 before traveling to his native Germany. Feaster describes Wangemann as "the first serious professional recording engineer." While in Paris, he recorded orchestras, pianists, a comedian and others. He even recorded on the then-new Eiffel Tower.
While sound recordings were made as early as 1859, the ones on Edison's wax phonographs were in the first generation of intended for playback.
The trip yielded one of the best known early recordings, of Johannes Brahms playing the piano. But, Feaster said, that cylinder has given early recordings a bad name. "This poor recording was utterly worn out before anyone copied it," he said. "It's very noisy. You can barely hear there's a piano." Feaster says the newly identified recordings, by contrast, show what the then-new technology perfected by Edison could do.
Wangemann's other recordings from the trip were long sought after.
Biographies mentioned them. Wangemann himself referred to them in 1906 when testifying at a patent trial. He said that by then, some were broken, according to Jerry Fabris, the curator of the museum at the Thomas Edison National Historic Park. Ulrich Lappenkuper, managing director of the Otto von Bismarck Society in Friedrichsruh, Germany, said the search for one with the chancellor has gone on for years — in vain.
The story of the fragile brown wax cylinders picks up again in 1957, said Fabris. That was when the Edison home and laboratory were donated to the National Park Service.
At the time, there was a quick inventory of the lab's contents. A card attached to the wooden box said where it had been found. By then, Fabris said, some of the cylinders were broken by someone trying to pry open the locked box, which had no labels but one enticing feature in the form of the two words scratched in the wood: "Edison," and "Wangemann."
Fabris became curator of the sound recording collection in 1994. A year later, he started the decade-long task of cataloging all 39,000 phonographs in the collection, moving from the easiest to identify to the oldest, most experimental — and often unlabeled — ones.
He said he first gave a close look to the Wangemann cylinders in 2005. But at the time, he didn't have the equipment needed to convert the sounds stored on those fragile pieces into digital files. By 2010, he had what was needed and was able to convert the dozen cylinders that weren't too badly broken.
"When I heard that it was German speaking," he said, "that was a big clue that these might be something very important."
To figure out what it was, he called in Feaster, a lecturer in communication and culture at Indiana University, and, later, Puille, a conservator of archaeological finds at Berlin's University of Applied Sciences,
Puille said the words from the man speaking in a falsetto voice were hard to make out, but when he transcribed them he realized it was the chancellor speaking less than a year before he was replaced as chancellor.
The discovery has sparked intense interest in Germany. The Bismarck Society's Lappenkuper described it an in email as "hype," which he said could "fertilize the historical research."
He was interested to hear what the chancellor chose to say for posterity's sake: "Bismarck did not give any political advices but recitations of poems, lyrics... and a personal suggestion to his son to be moderate in working, eating and drinking!"
In Germany, the recording of Bismarck may be the most exciting. But another voice was also thrilling for Feaster to hear.
They captured Helmuth von Moltke, the longtime chief of staff for the Prussian army reciting lines from Shakespeare and other literature.
It's ironic, Feaster said, that a man born in 1800 and known as "the Great Silent One" is the owner of the only voice born in the 18th century known to be preserved.
Feaster said that find was a coup — but there are more to come in his field.
"There are always more holy grails," he said. "We're really at a moment where early sound recordings are turning up and becoming audible at a rate much greater than ever before."
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