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!

The ghost of San Francisco circa 1900 may haunt some of the narrow alleys of Chinatown. You might sense its presence in the Ferry Building, completed in 1898, and one of the very few large buildings to survive the earthquake in 1906.

Ferry Building

But by and large, the city is a modern one that breathes more vitality than nostalgic sighs. To find the past, you must sit quietly,  calm your heart and breathing, and drain  your mind of all thoughts.

The Victorian Cliff House was finished in 1896
The Victorian Cliff House was finished in 1896

At age 33, a photographer named Willard Worden moved to San Francisco.

Through his lens, we catch a glimpse of the beautiful city that once existed, was destroyed in the earthquake, and rose from the ashes like a phoenix to rebuild itself.


Leon Frank Czolgosz (pronounced show-gotz) was born in Michigan in 1873, to a large, poverty-stricken family. He went to work at the age of 10, and eventually landed a job with good wages at the American Steel and Wire Company, a wire mill in Cleveland, Ohio. Comparatively little is known of him. He was a reliable worker, but he witnessed scenes between striking workers and authorities which affected his mind. A mental breakdown occurred in 1898 which caused him to move home. By that time, he had developed a strong interest in anarchy.

Leon F. Czolgosz

Czolgosz believed American society, presumably represented by U.S. president William McKinley, enabled a handful of rich men to exploit the masses.

American Steel and Wire Company in Cleveland, Ohio
American Steel and Wire Company in Cleveland, Ohio

McKinley was reelected in 1900, and was scheduled to spend two days at the Pan-Am Exposition in Buffalo, New York. The president’s security team seemed to sense something sinister, and tried to dissuade McKinley from going to Buffalo. When that failed, the President’s secretary George Cortelyou twice removed a visit to the Temple of Music from McKinley’s agenda. In a series of decisions eerily similar to those made by another U.S. president some 60 years later, McKinley ignored his security team’s fears and requested the visit to the Temple of Music be added back to his schedule.