In 1889, Adelbert Wangemann, an associate of Thomas Edison, came to Europe to promote Edison’s latest invention, the phonograph. After making some recordings in Paris, Wangemann travelled to Germany, where the Siemens family opened doors for him to be received by the kaiser. On 7 October 1889, Wangemann met Otto von Bismarck, who agreed to speak a few words into the megaphone.
The wax cylinders were discovered in Edison’s laboratory in 1957 and sent to the Edison Library in West Orange, NJ for storage. In 2005, the Edison Trust began to digitalise all the early recordings and the work was recently completed by the museum curator. A media historian was asked to assist with the identification of the voices. One of the scientists, Norman Bruderhofer, described the results in a paper put on line earlier this month.
Bismarck begins in English, with a few lines from a song called ‘Good Old Colony Times’, possibly as a greeting to Edison. He then quotes in Latin from ‘Gaudeamus igitur’, and follows up with a verse from a German folksong and the opening of the ‘Marseillaise’, a choice which one historian described as a ‘sensation’, though that may be overstating it. He ends with some ‘advice from a father to a son’: moderation in all things, especially food and drink – advice that Bismarck, who had a huge appetite for champagne at breakfast time, didn’t follow himself.
Two weeks later Wangemann recorded Helmuth von Moltke, Bismarck’s right hand in the wars to unite Germany under Prussian leadership. Moltke, showing less whimsy than Bismarck and more insight, declared his admiration for an instrument that would enable ‘a deceased person to speak to future generations’. Moltke was 89 years old when he made the recording: what we hear is the voice of a man born more than two centuries ago.