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!

This is part 2 of a very American double-header!

Have you taken the 2020 census yet? I did a couple of weeks ago, and I was surprised by how short it was. I remember it being very long and detailed in 2010, with questions like, “Do you carpool to work? If so, how many people are in your car pool?” Why does the government need to know that much information about me. I still don’t know the answer to that but nevertheless census records are really fascinating. recently highlighted this census record of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, which was actually filled out at the White House:

Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s census

I found the records of two well-known people in the census data to share with you.

The first census is John Wilkes Booth, best known for being the assassin of Abraham Lincoln, just after the Civil War. Booth murdered Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, DC, and fled on horseback into Virginia, where he was killed 12 days later by federal troops. Well, unless you believe the theory that Booth survived and died in 1902 or thereabouts.

John Wilkes Booth, 1865

In 1860, Booth was already a famous actor. In 1860, he had no idea that with five years, he would be infamous and reviled by Americans. The soon-to-be-infamous actor was just 22 and was already well-known. Booth was a famous stage actor, or as he put it, a Tragedian– one who performs tragic roles in the theater. He was living in Philadelphia, with his mother and siblings. His brother, Edwin, also a tragedian, lived at the same address.  Fortunately, another person living at the address listed his occupation as a Comedian, and hopefully balanced things out a little!

The 1860 census in Philadelphia (John Wilkes Booth highlighted)


The other record I found was Theodore Roosevelt’s 1900 census. Roosevelt had no idea what the next two years held for him. He was the governor of New York in June 1900. Eight months later, he would be the vice-president of the United States. And seven months into the second  McKinley administration, the president was assassinated, catapulting Roosevelt into the presidency. (Who knows what great things will happen to you in the next 15 months?)

Sagamore Hill, Roosevelt’s home

But in 1900, Roosevelt was not exactly bored and waiting for something to happen. He was living in Oyster Bay with his second wife, Edith Kermit Roosevelt. Their house was called Sagamore Hill and in addition to the couple, it was also home to their six children and seven full-time employees.

Theodore Roosevelt’s 1900 census

The census is a unique snapshot in time!

The wounded President McKinley was taken to Milburn House, where Ida was waiting. His cabinet was informed of the shooting, and they rushed to Buffalo to join the president. Initially, however, it looked as though a crisis had been averted. The doctors were optimistic and President McKinley appeared to be on the mend. The Cabinet dispersed and Vice President Roosevelt headed for a long-planned camping trip in the Adirondacks.

The doctors had overlooked the earliest signs that the president’s wounds had become infected and on the morning of September 13, a week after the shooting, William McKinley’s health began a rapid decline. The doctors were confronted with the ugly reality that the president was dying. Gangrene had set in, and it was rapidly poisoning him. No drugs yet existed that could control such an infection. His pulse grew fainter all day, until around 5 p.m., when the president suffered a heart attack.

That evening, McKinley realized what the doctors had known all day. “It is useless, gentlemen,” he whispered. “I think we ought to have prayer.”

He wanted to see Ida. The First Lady rushed to him and sobbed, “I want to go, too! I want to go, too!”

“We are all going,” he said soothingly. “God’s will be done– not ours.” He lost consciousness shortly afterwards and on Saturday at 2:14 a.m., William McKinley’s spirit departed.

Buffalo Courier front page of Sept 14 1901

As soon as the president was known to be dying, messengers had been sent out to locate the vice president. The adventurous Roosevelt was camping on Mount Marcy, far from easy reach of civilization. As soon as he was located, Roosevelt rushed back to the president’s bedside but he was too late to see McKinley. Instead, he was inaugurated as the twenty-sixth president of the United States in the city of Buffalo.

While America mourned the fallen McKinley, the people were hopeful about Theodore Roosevelt. He was still relatively unknown to most of the country, having been the vice president for less than 200 days, but he was a man of the age: optimistic, tough, and an avid outdoorsman. Had they heard of Roosevelt at all, it would have been about his speech to the crowd at the Minnesota State Fair, when he said: “Speak softly and carry a big stick, and you will go far.”

Nine days after President McKinley’s death, Leon Czolgosz went on trial for his murder. The trial was short, mostly because the defense had nothing to present. Czolgosz would not speak to his attorneys, though he communicated freely with everyone else. After 30 minutes of deliberation, the jury declared the president’s assassin Guilty. The judge sentenced him to death.

Exactly 45 days after President McKinley died, on October 29, 1901, Leon Czolgosz made his final statement. “I killed the president because he was the enemy of the good people— the good working people,” he said defiantly. “I am not sorry for my crime.” Moments later, an Edison camera recorded his execution, by electrocution.

A panoramic souvenir picture of the Pan-American Exposition

A month later, the Pan-Am Exposition closed. Eight million people had visited the magnificent City of Light within the city of Buffalo. Workers dismantled and packed up the exhibits, and the beautiful buildings were demolished.

Despite the end of the exposition, and the tragedy that hung over the place, no one could fail to be impressed with Buffalo’s beauty and ingenuity. The city had made its mark. Buffalo was a consequential place.