I’m pretty comfortable with technology, complacent even, but every once in a while some commonplace thing about our modern world just amazes me.
One day about 120 years ago, French actress Sarah Bernhardt left the Broadway theater where she was performing and set out on a journey that took her over the Hudson River into New Jersey. She was the most famous actress in the world, known as “Divine Sarah,” and she was going to Menlo Park to visit the most famous inventor in the world. She didn’t reach his home until after midnight, but that was okay, because she was there to see Thomas Edison, and he had the lights on.
Electric light wasn’t the only new invention in use. Edison had also invented the first audio recording device. Never before had anyone heard a human voice that didn’t come directly out of a human mouth. For the first time, people could hear voices from the past. Or record them for the future.
That night, Edison used one of his machines to make a wax cylinder recording of Sarah Bernhardt as she did a dramatic reading from Jean Racine’s opera Phèdre.
Reading about that moment, I found myself thinking about how far we’ve come. Two amazing things struck me:
The first one is that I have a Sony Digital Voice recorder that I use for taking notes and (if I ever attempt actual journalism) recording interviews. Its tiny little condenser microphone captures sounds far better than Edison’s wax cylinder phonograph, it stores almost 24 hours of audio, and it operates on a pair of AAA batteries. When Thomas Edison recorded Bernhardt’s performance, he was the world’s expert on audio recording. Skip forward 120 years, and I can make a better recording using a device I keep in my pocket.
The second amazing thing is that when Edison recorded Sarah Bernhardt’s reading from Phèdre there was no way to copy phonograph recordings. To hear her performance, you would have had to have that exact cylinder, recorded in her presence. 120 years later, sitting in the comfort of my own home, I was able to find a copy of it just minutes after finding out that it had been made. All you have to do is click here and dozens of computers spread all over the landscape will briefly cooperate to pull a digital copy from magnetic storage, transmit it to your location, and play it over your speakers. (Be warned, however, that because of the recording medium it’s very quiet, and of course it’s also not in English.)
(I found the Bernhardt-meets-Edison story while reading The Grid: A Journey Through the Heart of Our Electrified World by Phillip F. Schewe who cites Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 by Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace as his source. You can find Sarah Bernhardt’s wax cylinder recordings at the Cylinder Preservation and Digitization project at the University of California in Santa Barbara.)