Combining Sound and Film to Study History

Historical Testimonials of a Bygone Era

Imagine being able to travel back in time and being able to interview people across different eras like the Wild West era, the era of slavery, and other points in time.  Well, that is the power of Youtube, because these types of recordings already exist and they feature discussions with people that lived during these different eras, and listening to what they have to say about those bygone eras might make your jaw drop.  Although Youtube might be the platform we turn to to look over those recordings, none of it would be possible without the pioneer innovators who thought differently about “hearing” and “seeing”, which is why it is worth knowing about the origin stories of sound and film.

The origin story of “sound”.

The long-debated issue of what the first-ever recorded sound was was put to rest in the late 2000s after new technology allowed sound waves on black paper to be “brought to life”, hearing sound from Paris by Edouard-Leon Scott de Martinville in the later 1850s.  As a result, the “first-ever” recorded sound came by the way of the phonautogram, and it was a 10-second clip of a woman singing “Au Clair de la Lune”, and it now predates Edison’s recording of “Mary Had a Little Lamb” by 17 years.

The difference between the two “recordings” is that the “first-ever” recording is a bunch of muffled noise whereas Edison’s recording allowed for some words to be understood.  The difference between the manner in which the two recordings were recorded can be summed up by saying the “first” was done on a paper coated with soot from an oil lamp while Edison’s was done on tin foil.  However, a distinction should be made between the tracking of sound waves that were then enhanced and humanized by researchers leveraging technology to create a “muffled noise” compared to a clear recording of the human voice made by Edison, which otherwise gives the appearance that the recognition for the “first-ever” recording seemed to have something to do with lowering the towering legacy of Thomas Edison, whose “talking machine” was the first to be able to record and playback sound.

The origin story of “film”.

The oldest video in recorded history is not a video at all, it is six to twelve “automatic electro photographs” depicting the movement of a horse shot in June of 1878, “The Horse in Motion”, shot by English photographer Eadweard Muybridge.  But the oldest surviving film in existence, and widely recognized as the first video ever filmed, is “Roundhay Garden Scene”, a 2-second silent short, filmed by French inventor Louis Le Prince on October 14, 1888.

These two firsts, with ten years between them, inspired the imagination of every early-1900s inventor, and gave way to one of the most famous family pastimes, sitting around a television.  But no single inventor should be credited with inventing the television, and here is why.  To start, while the first television was created in 1930, the creation was the result of building upon technologies that dated back to the 1830s with the telegraph, sending beeping sound messages along wires, and the 1870s with the telephone, allowing voice to travel through wires over long distances.

Great minds like Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Edison speculated about the possibility of a telephone-like device that could transmit both images and sound, but it was a German inventor by the name of Paul Nipkow who came up with a technology in 1884 that would eventually give way to the television, by sending images through wire spinning discs – or what Nipkow referred to as the “electric telescope”.  Eventually the spinning discs would be replaced with ray tubes, an earlier technology invented by German physicist Karl Braun, later repurposed by Russian physicist Boris Rosing and Scottish engineer Alan Archibald Campbell-Swinton.  But it was an American inventor by the name of Philo Farnswarth, who came up with his version of the television while he was a teenager and in chemistry class, and who completed the first prototype of the first working television by the age of 21.

The Wild West Era – The Pony Express

The Pony Express was a first-of-its-kind mail delivery service that operated across the American Frontier, starting up in 1860 and lasting 18 months until being replaced by telegraphs.  What made the Pony Express unique was that it had a series of designated outposts that were approximately 40 kilometers apart, and this allowed for riders and horses to be quicker and for the mail to be delivered faster.  However, the Pony Express was one of the most dangerous jobs in 1860 because there were hostile Native tribes and outlaws.

There is a video interview on YouTube titled, “1860s Wild West Rider Talks About the Pony Express”, featuring a cowboy by the name of Richard Clarke (December 15, 1845 – May 5, 1930) who was born in England and made his way over to the American Frontier.  During Clarke’s time spent working on the Pony Express, he described it as being the toughest work in the bunch and by saying that sometimes outposts would get destroyed by Native tribes and outlaws, and he follows that up by showing the firing technique riders were taught to use.  Although Richard Clarke last walked this earth just under 100 years ago, watching him speak, the YouTube experience, humanizes him to the point that it almost makes you feel that this was someone from not that long ago.

The Slavery Era – Born into slavery, now free.

One of the lowest points in human history, from not that long ago, was the era of the Transatlantic Slave Trade.  Most of the world knows about how Africans were enslaved and shipped across the Atlantic Ocean and then exposed to all sorts of depravities, but slavery was a ‘global phenomenon’ that countries across Europe, Asia, and the Middle East had familiarity with, but which they have no interest in reconciling.

There is a video interview on YouTube titled, “Rebecca Latimer – 94yrs old born 1835 US Senator & Slave owner”, filmed in 1929, featuring a US Senator and slave owner by the name of Rebecca Latimer (June 10, 1835 – January 24, 1930) who discusses the changes of the American landscape that she has lived through: from Native Americans being relegated to Indian Territories to the halting of slavery.  Another video titled, “Two Former Slaves Born in 1842 and 1852 Talk About the 1850s”, filmed in 1932, features a man named Elihu Thomson (March 29, 1853 – March 13, 1937) and an unidentified woman by his side, and both of them briefly discuss their early-life and slavery.  Whether intentional or not, neither recording has any reference to the depravities that human beings carried out on other human beings that were known to have taken place during the era of slavery that we are familiar with.

What makes the United States of America so unique in all of this is how it is almost exclusively referenced in conversations around slavery, and we might forget that many countries across South America, including Brazil, benefited from the depravities of slavery.  Another unique aspect to all of this is that the United States is one of the few countries that seems genuine in its commitment to truth and reconciliation, and which allows for an honest assessment of the depravities of their nation’s past.  However, many countries across South America, Europe, Middle East, and Asia have attempted to erase any mention of their involvement in the enslaving of people, and some have succeeded in wiping any mention of it from their history books, despite that history tells us that the enslavement of people was a global problem and that all ‘great’ empires participated in it.

Back into the future.

In today’s world of free-flowing podcasts, imagine if someone like a Joe Rogan would have interviewed Nikola Tesla’s nephew, William H.  Terbo (December 1930 – August 2018), who had interacted with Tesla while a child and where he shared some unique stories about Tesla in smaller interviews.  Then there is David McCullough (July 7, 1933 – August 7, 2022), who was considered the leading figure on all-things American history.  How great would it have been to hear either of these gentlemen speak about their lives, in a loose multi-hour podcast environment.  The nature of free-flowing podcast interviews would have done wonders.

Most of us are often only two handshakes away from going back 100 years into the past.  Think about it, a child shakes hands with a grandparent or another elderly person, who at some point in their early life shook hands with their grandparent or another elderly person while they were a child themselves.  Now imagine whether these interviewees, born pre-1900s, could imagine that, almost a century from their interviews, someone somewhere would be listening to them talk about their lives.  When some of these interviews reference the 80s and 90s, they are referring to the 1880s and 1890s and not the 1980s and 1990s, and some of them lived long enough to see the transition from horse to carriage to car to plane to spaceship.  So, remember all of this the next time you shake hands and there is a huge generational gap between you and the person you are shaking hands with, and maybe even try to squeeze a little history out of them too.