Listen to the Echoing Voices of the Past

The names and faces of men like Thomas Edison and Theodore Roosevelt are familiar to us. Perhaps we’ve seen grainy silent video clips of them moving about. We can read their biographies and learn about their achievements and sometimes even famous speeches.

Few of us know what their voices actually sounded like. Does that matter? Absolutely!  The voice matters at least as much as the words. It shapes how we feel about the message.

At his inauguration, President John F. Kennedy made a famous plea to the American people: “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”

When those who remember or have studied Kennedy read these words, they recall how he looked and sounded, as he said them. Imagine the same words being uttered in a comical way or with a very timid voice. They would have been soon forgotten.

John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address

There is data to support this. The exact percentage varies according to the study, but your words only account for about 15% of your message. The rest is communicated by vocals (tone, pace, volume, inflection, etc.) and nonverbals (posture, gestures, etc.).

Today, we have no way of listening to the voices of most historical figures. The very first audio recording was made by Thomas Edison in 1877. It’s been lost now, but we know the 22 words he said. Can you guess? I’ll give you a hint now and tell you the answer at the end of this post. The earliest recordings were made on wax cylinders. A surprising number of old recordings are available online. UC Santa Barbara has a vast archive.

Hint: You’ve heard the words before, probably when you were a child.

Wax cylinder recordings

We do have a window of time in which recordings were made but aren’t great quality by today’s standards. They often have a lot of excess noise, though the quality steadily improved. We’re fortunate to have them and if you give the older technology some grace, the recordings illuminate a new perspective on what is being said.

So, what do you think Theodore Roosevelt’s voice sounded like? What about Thomas Edison? Take a look at their pictures, guess what their voice sounds like, and then listen. Does the recording match what you imagined? Are their voices inspiring or exciting?

Theodore Roosevelt, 25th president of the United States, pictured  in 1912, when the recording was made

The right of the people to rule


Thomas Edison, America’s most famous inventor

Electricity and progress
So, what were the first recorded words that Edison spoke in 1877?

Mary had a little lamb,
Whose fleece was white as snow.

And everywhere that Mary went,
The lamb was sure to go.

I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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