Listening to the past: NPS releases historic audio recordings

The National Park Service has released a dozen historic sound recordings originally made on wax cylinders in 1889-1890. The recording engineer, Theo Wangemann, was an assistant of Thomas Edison who experimented on ways to improve musical recordings. The recordings include the first Chancellor of the German Empire Otto von Bismarck reciting poetry and songs in four languages.

Museum Curators first cataloged the damaged wooden box containing the wax cylinders in 1957, found in the library of the Edison Laboratory. In 2005, the National Park Service completed a multi-year project to individually catalog every historic sound recording in the museum collection. Curators noted that the box contained 17 brown wax cylinders in fair and poor condition, several broken with large pieces missing. No title list or other identification survived in the box with the recordings, so the recordings could not be identified until they were heard. In 2011, the park's Curator of Sound Recordings digitized 12 of Wangemann's 17 cylinders using a French-made Archeophonecylinder playback machine, saving the audio as Broadcast Wave Format files. (Five of the cylinders could not be digitized due to their condition.) Once the audio could be heard, historians Stephan Puille and Patrick Feaster identified the sounds and wrote two scholarly essays, which are included with the recordings on the Thomas Edison National Historical Park website.

As Atlantic Monthly points out, this release also include the only known recordings of an individual born in the 18th century, German military strategist Helmuth von Moltke. You can listen to the recordings online.[InfoDocket, via Free Government Information]

— Shari Laster, University Libraries, The University of Akron. Photo: Phonatic / Wikimedia

LibraryLab posts come courtesy of the American Library Association member interest group Library Boing Boing.


  1. If people are interested in old music, check out the Internet Archives’ archives.

    If you want playlists of other old music from – stuff from 1900-1910 –  check here: 

    [Disclaimer: I wrote the code I’ve linked to.]

    [Edit: it’s also 90% actually listenable to and enjoyable, as opposed to these very noisy recordings]

  2. “The recordings include the first Chancellor of the German Empire Otto von Bismarck reciting poetry and songs in four languages.”

    That’s kind of insanely awesome.

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