19th-Century Germany Revived Thanks to Thomas Edison Recordings

By Darlene Fuchs on Email

A collection of 17 wax cylinder phonograph records, tucked away for 122 years in a cabinet in Thomas Edison’s New Jersey laboratory, were found in 1957.  These cylinders contained rare recordings made in Europe between 1889 and 1890 by Adelbert Theodor Edward Wangemann. He was hired by Edison in the late 1800’s to travel around Germany recording political figures while marketing the phonograph.

One of the recovered wax cylinders

The wax cylinders remained untouched for more than a century since no one had any idea what was on them until recently, when Jerry Fabis, the curator at the Edison Laboratory used an Archeophone (a playback device) to trace the grooves on the cylinders, converting them to an audible format.

With the help of sound historians Patrick Feaster of Indiana University and Stephan Pulle of the University of Applied Sciences in Berlin, they discovered the faint recordings to include the voice of Otto von Bismarck, Germany’s first chancellor.  Although barely audible, he can be heard reciting extracts of poetry, songs and even some words of advise to his son.

Other cylinders preserved the voice of Helmuth von Moltke, a German military strategist, works by German and Hungarian musicians and even what is though to be the first recorded work by Polish composer Chopin.

Today, history is chronicled by computers, digital voice and video. Although we may never see Paul Revere on YouTube or hear David recite Psalm 23, these recordings provide a glimpse into the past.

You can listen to the full audio recovered from the cylinders and read the transcripts on the Thomas Edison National Historical Park’s website.

Darlene Fuchs