Listening to the Past
Until relatively recently tape-recorded interviews, speeches, events and radio broadcasts have rarely found the prominence they deserve in the historian’s toolkit. Despite the rising popularity of oral history, particularly at school level and amongst local historians, audio documents remain underused. This is surprising given the range of material accessible through a network of national, regional and local sound archives, record offices, libraries and museums, and increasingly on-line.
Thomas Edison invented the first means for recording and reproducing sound – the phonograph – in 1877, but few spoken-word recordings survive from before 1914. Initially the phonograph was exploited as an office dictation machine and for private amusement. Few leading figures made recordings and the technology was outside the means of most people. We do, however, have the recorded voices of people like Florence Nightingale, Gladstone, Robert Browning, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Christabel Pankhurst and David Lloyd George, and these give us a remarkable opportunity to eavesdrop on the Victorian and Edwardian eras. As historian Andrew Roberts has remarked: ‘I find hearing people from the past very evocative. In a few short moments it fixes the period in context…it allows your imagination to take off. There you are in the same room as Chamberlain or whoever’ (Playback, 20, Autumn 1998). Even these early scratchy and indistinct recordings can provide character and atmosphere, and there are many other recordings of people born in the Victorian period which give us the kind of insights into how ordinary people lived their lives that are frequently missing from published and manuscript records.
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