The person who invented sound recording was partially deaf. Thomas Edison, the inventor of the phonograph was hard of hearing. He may not have been able to hear birds sing, as he famously said, but he could hear enough to create a machine that would change our world of sound. And really, change the world. More importantly, if someone who is almost deaf and can invent a way to capture sound - and on tinfoil, by the way...Ah, I can’t help but feel the tingle of possibilities.
Edison received his patent for the phonograph in 1878 a year after he recorded “Mary had a little lamb.” Prior to that sound was ephemeral - gone the moment after it is made. With the invention of the phonograph sound could travel through both space and time providing a music lover in Iowa the ability to listen to the Berlin Philharmonic perform Beethoven’s 5th. The power of sound was not lost on either sound creator or sound consumer of the early 20th century I’m sure.
Developments in recording formats moved along at a steady pace in the subsequent years after the invention of the phonograph: from wax cylinders to wire and steel band recordings and on to shellac discs. All of these formats were incredibly fragile (still are and cause many archivist sleepless nights) and required a fairly controlled environment and recording equipment wasn’t exactly mobile.
Recording formats didn’t exactly get more more stable as time went on - preservation of sound still gives archivists gray hair - but it did get more mobile. The format that helped to give birth to modern oral history was Instantaneous (acetate) Discs. Developed in the 1930s it was a format that was easy and accessible to handle and record, and more importantly, was cheap and mobile. Instantaneous disc could record on the spot and it provided immediate playback; didn’t get it right the first time, do it again. The importance of this feature cannot be overstated.
Field researchers of all kinds wasted no time in taking this format on the road. Luckily (for history lovers at least!), the significance of this recording method was also not lost on WPA administrators who sent out writers, musicians, photographers, artists, teachers, journalists to record history and create art. WPA field researchers collected and documented vast swaths of American culture - most notably through the Writers’ and Music Projects - that are now iconic representations of the depression and WWII eras. Without the Writers’ project we might not not be able to listen to the Slave Narratives. Although not part of the WPA, another well-known collection of field recordings is Alan Lomax’s collection of music recordings. But he didn’t just record music, he also recorded interviews, personal narratives, and other sounds related to his subjects. Powerful sound indeed!
Hearing the voices of the people of history provides us with a visceral experience. Listening to Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I have a Dream” and his voice, his passion, and the responses from the over a quarter of a million people is quite different from reading the transcripts. He was, of course, an oratorical master, but imagine for a moment having only the transcript as a record of his speech.
Sounds from history can also have much more chilling effects. I teach a research class and to demonstrate the publication cycle of different types of documents I have students review primary and secondary sources related to 9/11. One time I used the NORAD tapes that captured the calls from flight attendants. I only used these one time. The experience of listening to a flight attendant report to the best of her ability on the state of her flight on which people had been stabbed and when she likely knew that she was going to die, is gut-wrenching.
In the 1950s recording devices hit the consumer market and while they weren’t exactly cheap, they were accessible to many household. What I find most interesting about this period of sound recording history is that the manufactured seemed to know that they had something really significant, but didn’t quite know how to market it or how it would be used. Family audio albums, record your favorite radio show, record baby’s first words - these were some of the suggestions, and some people did use the recorder in these ways. What they may not have predicted is that their product would contribute to making history come alive for coming generations.