posted by James Reel
It's scratchy and muffled and sounds like some goofy character from a children's TV show, but it's actually the oldest playable recording of an American voice and the first-ever capturing of a musical performance, restored about as well as it can be; you can (barely) listen to it here. As described in this Associated Press article, the recording was made on a sheet of tinfoil in St. Louis in 1878, begins with a little cornet solo that sounds more like somebody humming through a comb kazoo. After this, a man presumed to be Thomas Mason, a St. Louis newspaper political writer who also went by the pen name I.X. Peck, recites fragments of "Mary Had a Little Lamb" and "Old Mother Hubbard," with some phony-sounding stage chuckling in between, and in the end gets the "Mother Hubbard" words wrong and laughs at his own mistake. It's probably that blooper that saved the recording; Mason, I'd guess, didn't care to play it for his friends (the Edison recording device was more suited to parlor tricks than documenting anything serious), and so it didn't self-destruct after a couple of playbacks, as did almost every other tinfoil recording (it was played with a needle, and you know what that can do to flimsy material like this).
Although Carl Haber and a team at his Berkeley lab went to heroic lengths to use optical scanning technology to make the recording playable, it's still barely listenable. And even if it were crystal-clear, I wonder what it would tell us about how people like Mason and his fellow St. Louis residents really sounded in 1878. Obviously, the fellow is speaking slowly and broadly for the benefit of a primitive recording device, almost as if he's reading the nursery rhymes to an infant (which, essentially, he was). He probably didn't speak quite like this among his friends. Yet we know from better-preserved recordings from the next few decades that the diction, pronunciation and cadence of public orators in the late 19th/early 20th centuries was quite different from what it is now. When you have time, go snooping around the Internet for audio snippets of Teddy Roosevelt, from the era of addressing crowds from platforms in a public square, then compare that to the fireside chats of TR's fifth cousin Franklin Delano Roosevelt, from the era of newsreels, microphones and electrical recording. Even FDR sounds mannered compared to any of our modern presidents. And perhaps you've noticed that Barack Obama will alter his diction and vocabulary choice depending on his audience and surroundings; public address is not a static thing, even for a single individual.
And in case you're wondering, no, none of us here at Arizona Public Media converse in quite the same voices we use on air. But nobody around here sounds like tinfoil man Thomas Mason.