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!

I’m avoiding the pandemic coverage. Once you understand what you can/should do, it seems needlessly depressing to continue to watch the coverage. But earlier today, I heard part of a radio interview with an epidemiologist, i.e., a person who studies disease. She said that most people in her field believe that there is a devastating pandemic about every 100 years and gave some frightening numbers that represent the worst case scenario.

She talked a little about the Spanish flu, and how the scale could be about the same with COVID-19. And it’s right on time: the Spanish Flu ravaged the earth from 1918-1920. It made me wonder about the parallels between then and now. I’d like to figure out a few categories (like socializing, working, etc.) and compare human behavior between then and now. There must be something we could reach back and seize to use today. Or some mistake that was made that we could examine and avoid.

I didn’t have a lot of material about the Spanish flu to look back on. Just one post, which is about the damage wrought by the war and the flu, and what followed. You could think of the world like a caterpillar and the Great War and the Spanish flu as the chrysalis. But eventually the world came out of the chrysalis transformed into something bright and new.

Evidently the editor of Life Magazine also thought so!

A 1920 cover of life magazine


If we have to go through a 2-year chrysalis, that would be hard. However, if there is an opportunity to glean something, maybe we won’t have to repeat it. After all, as George Santayana told us: Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.


An Age of Agony

During the latter half of the 1910s, the world was plunged into an era of misery. World War I (1914 – 1918) destroyed life and property on a massive scale.

The Battle of the Somme, 1916, one of the largest battles
Battle of the Somme

65 million people joined the fight, despite grim survival odds. A World War I soldier stood a roughly 50/50 chance of returning home alive, with their physical health intact:

  • Est. 9.5 million troops killed (roughly the combined populations of present-day Denmark and Morocco)
  • Est. 21 million troops injured
  • Est. 6.5 million civilians killed during the war (roughly the combined populations of present-day Switzerland and Chile)
No Man's Land
No Man’s Land on the French front

Those lucky enough to survive the conflict and return home were rarely unscathed: missing eyes and limbs were very common, as were burns. Yet shell shock – the significant psychological reaction to the terrors of the front – was not considered to be an injury and is excluded from statistics.


gas mask
The gas mask, patent 1914, protected soldiers from mustard gas

Soldiers who suffered from shell shock often did not receive the treatment they needed because the problem was not understood – even by most doctors. This short, disturbing video highlights the plight of men returning from the front with this terrible problem.


One hundred and five years ago tonight, on the first Christmas Eve of World War One, a curious thing happened.

World War One, or the Great War, began in 1914. Like other long conflicts in history, many soldiers had gone to the battlefields enthusiastically, believing the war would be brief. When the first wave of soldiers departed for the front in July 1914, many imagined they would return home in a month or two, flushed with victory. By December 1914, they had been thoroughly disillusioned. So many soldiers had perished on the battlefield already, and both sides now understood the war would be a prolonged death grapple, one in which they fervently believed their own army must triumph.

The Catholic church had a new Pope that year. At the beginning of December, Benedict XV pleaded for a temporary truce for Christmas. His proposal was dismissed by Allied and German leaders.

French troops – from

The dreariness of the trenches on the Western Front— and the No Man’s Land that stretched between them— was all too familiar to the soldiers. The battlefields were dotted with ruined buildings and barbed wire. Continual rain made the ground muddy, adding to the nightmarish scene. The soldiers lived in a terrifying state of eternal readiness. Even in their sleep, they were on edge, never sure when machine gun fire or gas attacks might disrupt their fitful dreams. It was a miserable life.

But on Christmas Eve, the temperature dropped and the rain turned to snow. The crackling gun fire and shrill whistle of incoming mortar fire on the battlefield became sporadic, then it ceased altogether. The German emperor William II sent Christmas trees to the front in an effort to bolster the morale of the troops. And it worked. The German soldiers, longing for home and Christmases past, were delighted with the trees, and began to sing the carols that were familiar to them since childhood.

Across No Man’s Land, startled French, Scottish, and British soldiers heard a familiar melody. The German soldiers were singing “Still Nacht”. The Allied troops were missing their homes and loved ones too, and soon they were singing the familiar old songs.


WWI Troops from


The unofficial ceasefire lasted through the night. When the soldiers awakened the next morning, it was not to the sound of gunfire and shouting. Instead, they plainly heard the other army calling to them. To the great surprise of the German soldiers, they distinctly heard the Allied troops calling out: “Fröhliche Weihnachten!”

Calling back “Merry Christmas!” and “Joyeux noël!”, the German soldiers climbed out of their trenches unarmed, waving to the Allied soldiers to signal they meant no harm. Not a shot was fired at them. In a moment, the Allied troops followed suit, leaving the safety of their trenches. The opposing sides met and greeted each other in No Man’s Land. They had no common language but they managed to convey goodwill toward each other, shaking hands and offering the few luxuries they possessed as gifts to one another— cigarettes and baked treats mailed from far-away homes. In at least one instance, an impromptu game of soccer was played.


Armistice Day football match to remember the famous Christmas Day truce – from The Independent


The festivities lasted throughout the day and into the evening, when candles were placed on the Christmas trees sent by William II. And along the Western Front, there was singing in French, German, and English.

Later in life, a German Lieutenant named Kurt Zehmisch remembered, “How marvelously wonderful, yet how strange it was. The English officers felt the same way about it. Thus Christmas, the celebration of Love, managed to bring mortal enemies together as friends for a time.”