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Recordings from 1889 and 1890 include Chancellor Bismarck and a work of Chopin.

New York Times

Tucked away for decades in a cabinet in Thomas Edison's laboratory, just behind the cot in which the great inventor napped, a trove of wax cylinder phonograph records has been brought back to life after more than a century of silence.

The cylinders, from 1889 and 1890, include the only known recording of the voice of the powerful Chancellor Otto von Bismarck. Two preserve the voice of Helmuth von Moltke, a venerable German military strategist, reciting lines from Shakespeare and from Goethe's Faust into a phonograph horn. Others hold musical treasures - lieder and rhapsodies performed by German and Hungarian singers and pianists at the apex of the Romantic era, including what is thought to be the first recording of a work by Chopin.

Officials at Edison's old laboratory in West Orange, N.J., now Thomas Edison National Historical Park, unveiled the newly identified recordings Monday.

"This is sensational," said Ulrich Lappenkueper, director of the Otto von Bismarck Foundation in Friedrichsruh, Germany.

The unlabeled recordings had been found in 1957. But their contents remained unknown until last year, when Jerry Fabris, the curator at the Edison lab, used a playback device called the Archeophone to trace the grooves of 12 of the 17 cylinders in the box and convert the analog electrical signals into broadcast WAV files.

Two sound historians helped identify the faint recordings.

The lid of the box with the recordings held an important clue. It had been scratched with the words "Wangemann. Edison."

The first name refers to Adelbert Theodor Edward Wangemann, who joined the laboratory in 1888, assigned to transform Edison's newly perfected wax cylinder phonograph into a marketable device for listening to music.

In June 1889, Edison sent Wangemann to Europe, initially to ensure that the phonograph at the Paris World's Fair remained in working order. After Paris, Wangemann toured his native Germany, recording musical artists and often visiting the homes of prominent members of society who were fascinated with the talking machine.