The Oldest Voices That We Can Still Hear: Hear Audio Recordings of Ghostly Voices from the 1800s

What his­to­ry nerd doesn’t thrill to Thomas Edi­son speak­ing to us from beyond the grave in a 50th anniver­sary repeat of his ground­break­ing 1877 spo­ken word record­ing of (those hop­ing for lofti­er stuff should dial it down now) Mary Had a Lit­tle Lamb?

The orig­i­nal rep­re­sents the first time a record­ed human voice was suc­cess­ful­ly cap­tured and played back. We live in hope that the frag­ile tin­foil sheet on which it was record­ed will turn up in someone’s attic some­day.

Appar­ent­ly Edi­son got it in the can on the first take. The great inven­tor lat­er rem­i­nisced that he “was nev­er so tak­en aback” in his life as when he first heard his own voice, issu­ing forth from the phono­graph into which he’d so recent­ly shout­ed the famous nurs­ery rhyme:

Every­body was aston­ished. I was always afraid of things that worked the first time.

His achieve­ment was a game chang­er, obvi­ous­ly, but it was­n’t the first time human speech was suc­cess­ful­ly record­ed, as Kings and Things clar­i­fies in the above video.

That hon­or goes to Édouard-Léon Scott de Mar­t­inville, whose pho­nau­to­graph, patent­ed in 1857, tran­scribed vocal sounds as wave forms etched onto lamp­black-coat­ed paper, wood, or glass.

Edison’s plans for his inven­tion hinged on its abil­i­ty to repro­duce sound in ways that would be famil­iar and of ser­vice to the lis­ten­ing pub­lic. A sam­pling:

  • A music play­er 
  • A device for cre­at­ing audio­books for blind peo­ple
  • A lin­guis­tic tool
  • An aca­d­e­m­ic resource of archived lec­tures
  • A record of tele­phone con­ver­sa­tions
  • A means of cap­tur­ing pre­cious fam­i­ly mem­o­ries. 

Léon Scot­t’s vision for his pho­nau­to­graph reflects his pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with the sci­ence of sound.

A pro­fes­sion­al type­set­ter, with an inter­est in short­hand, he con­ceived of the pho­nau­to­graph as an arti­fi­cial ear capa­ble of repro­duc­ing every hic­cup and quirk of pro­nun­ci­a­tion far more faith­ful­ly than a stenog­ra­ph­er ever could. It was, in the words of audio his­to­ri­an Patrick Feast­er,  the “ulti­mate speech-to-text machine.”

As he told NPR’s Talk of the Nation, Léon Scott was dri­ven to “get sounds down on paper where he could look at them and study them:”

…in terms of what we’re talk­ing about here visu­al­ly, any­body who’s ever used audio edit­ing soft­ware should have a pret­ty good idea of what we’re talk­ing about here, that kind of wavy line that you see on your screen that some­how cor­re­sponds to a sound file that you’re work­ing with…He was hop­ing peo­ple would learn to read those squig­gles and not just get the words out of them.

Although Léon Scott man­aged to sell a few pho­nau­to­graphs to sci­en­tif­ic lab­o­ra­to­ries, the gen­er­al pub­lic took lit­tle note of his inven­tion. He was pained by the glob­al acclaim that greet­ed Edison’s phono­graph 21 years lat­er, fear­ing that his own name would be lost to his­to­ry.

His fear was not unfound­ed, though as Conan O’Brien, of all peo­ple, mused, “even­tu­al­ly, all our graves go unat­tend­ed.”

But Léon Scott got a sec­ond act, as did sev­er­al uniden­ti­fied long-dead humans whose voic­es he had record­ed, when Dr. Feast­er and his First Sounds col­league David Gio­van­noni con­vert­ed some pho­nau­to­grams to playable dig­i­tal audio files using non-con­tact opti­cal-scan­ning tech­nol­o­gy from the Lawrence Berke­ley Nation­al Lab­o­ra­to­ry.

Dr. Feast­er describes the eerie expe­ri­ence of lis­ten­ing to the cleaned-up spo­ken word tracks after a long night of tweak­ing file speeds, using Léon Scot­t’s pho­nau­to­grams of tun­ing forks as his guide:

I’m a sound record­ing his­to­ri­an, so hear­ing a voice from 100 years ago is no real sur­prise for me. But sit­ting there, I was just kind of stunned to be think­ing, now I’m sud­den­ly at last lis­ten­ing to a per­for­mance of vocal music made in France before the Amer­i­can Civ­il War. That was just a stun­ning thing, feel­ing like a ghost is try­ing to sing to me through that sta­t­ic.

Scan­ning tech­nol­o­gy also allowed his­to­ri­ans to cre­ate playable dig­i­tal files of frag­ile foil record­ings made on Edi­son devices, like the St. Louis Tin­foil , made by writer and ear­ly adopter Thomas Mason in the sum­mer of 1878, as a way of show­ing off his new-fan­gled phono­graph, pur­chased for the whop­ping sum of $95.

The British Library’s Tin­foil Record­ing is thought to be the ear­li­est in exis­tence. It fea­tures an as-yet uniden­ti­fied woman, who may or may not be quot­ing from social the­o­rist Har­ri­et Mar­tineau… this gar­bled ghost is excep­tion­al­ly dif­fi­cult to pin down.

Far eas­i­er to deci­pher are the 1889 record­ings of Pruss­ian Field Mar­shall Hel­muth Von Multke, who was born in 1800, the last year of the 18th cen­tu­ry, mak­ing his the ear­li­est-born record­ed voice in audio his­to­ry.

The nona­ge­nar­i­an recites from Ham­let and Faust, and con­grat­u­lates Edi­son on his aston­ish­ing inven­tion:

This phono­graph makes it pos­si­ble for a man who has already long rest­ed in the grave once again to raise his voice and greet the present.

Relat­ed Con­tent

Down­load 10,000 of the First Record­ings of Music Ever Made, Cour­tesy of the UCSB Cylin­der Audio Archive

Suzanne Vega, “The Moth­er of the MP3,” Records “Tom’s Din­er” with the Edi­son Cylin­der

A Beer Bot­tle Gets Turned Into a 19th Cen­tu­ry Edi­son Cylin­der and Plays Fine Music

400,000+ Sound Record­ings Made Before 1923 Have Entered the Pub­lic Domain

The Web Site “Cen­turies of Sound” is Mak­ing a Mix­tape for Every Year of Record­ed Sound from 1860 to Present

Stream 385,000 Vin­tage 78 RPM Records at the Inter­net Archive: Louis Arm­strong, Glenn Miller, Bil­lie Hol­i­day & More

– Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author, most recent­ly, of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo and Cre­ative, Not Famous Activ­i­ty Book. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

RIP Norman Lear: Watch Full Episodes of His Daring 70s Sitcoms, Including All in the Family, Maude, The Jeffersons, and More

On the evening of Jan­u­ary 12, 1971, CBS view­ers across the Unit­ed States sat down to a brand new sit­com pre­ced­ed by a high­ly unusu­al dis­claimer. The pro­gram they were about to see, it declared, “seeks to throw a humor­ous spot­light on our frail­ties, prej­u­dices, and con­cerns. By mak­ing them a source of laugh­ter, we hope to show — in a mature fash­ion — just how absurd they are.” There­after com­menced the very first episode of All in the Fam­i­ly, which would go on, over nine full sea­sons, to define Amer­i­can tele­vi­sion in the nine­teen-sev­en­ties. It did so not just by dar­ing to find com­e­dy in the issues of the day — the Viet­nam War, the gen­er­a­tion gap, wom­en’s lib, race rela­tions, homo­sex­u­al­i­ty — but also by spawn­ing a vari­ety of oth­er major sit­coms like Maude, The Jef­fer­sons, and Good Times.

Even if you did­n’t live through the sev­en­ties, you’ve prob­a­bly heard of these shows. Now you can watch full episodes on the offi­cial Youtube chan­nel of Nor­man Lear, the tele­vi­sion writer and pro­duc­er involved in the cre­ation of all of them and many oth­ers besides.

If you’ve ever seen San­ford and Son, Fer­n­wood 2 NightDif­f’rent Strokes, or One Day at a Time (or if you hap­pened to catch such short-lived obscu­ri­ties as Hang­ing In, a.k.a. Pablo, and Sun­day Din­ner), you’ve seen one of his pro­duc­tions. His death this week at the age of 101 has pro­vid­ed the occa­sion to acquaint or reac­quaint our­selves with Archie and Edith Bunker, George and Louise Jef­fer­son, Flori­da and James Evans, and all the oth­er char­ac­ters from what we might now call the “Nor­man Lear mul­ti­verse.”

The best place to start is with the pre­miere of All in the Fam­i­ly, which intro­duces the Bunker clan and the cen­tral con­flict of their house­hold: that between bois­ter­ous­ly prej­u­diced work­ing-class patri­arch Archie Bunker and his bleed­ing-heart baby-boomer son-in-law Michael “Meat­head” Stivic. Lat­er episodes intro­duce such sec­ondary char­ac­ters as Edith Bunker’s strong-willed cousin Maude Find­lay, who went on to star in her own epony­mous series the fol­low­ing year, and the Bunkers’ enter­pris­ing black next-door neigh­bors the Jef­fer­sons, who them­selves “moved on up” in 1975. (So far did the tele­vi­su­al Lear­verse even­tu­al­ly expand that Good Times and Check­ing In were built around the char­ac­ters of Maude and the Jef­fer­sons’ maids.)

An out­spo­ken pro­po­nent of lib­er­al caus­es, Lear prob­a­bly would­n’t have denied using his tele­vi­sion work to influ­ence pub­lic opin­ion on the issues that con­cerned him. Yet at their best, his shows did­n’t reduce them­selves to polit­i­cal moral­i­ty plays, show­ing an aware­ness that the Archie Bunkers of the world weren’t always in the wrong and the Meat­heads weren’t always in the right. By twen­ty-first-cen­tu­ry stan­dards, the jokes volleyed back and forth in All in the Fam­i­ly or The Jef­fer­sons may seem blunt, not least when they employ terms now regard­ed as unspeak­able on main­stream tele­vi­sion. But they also have the forth­right­ness to go wher­ev­er the humor of the sit­u­a­tion — that is to say, the truth of the sit­u­a­tion — dic­tates, an uncom­mon qual­i­ty among even the most acclaimed come­dies this half-cen­tu­ry lat­er. Watch com­plete episodes of Nor­man Lear shows here.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Revis­it “Turn-On,” the Inno­v­a­tive TV Show That Got Can­celed Right in the Mid­dle of Its First Episode (1969)

Watch Mad Magazine’s Edgy, Nev­er-Aired TV Spe­cial (1974)

Watch Between Time and Tim­buk­tu, an Obscure TV Gem Based on the Work of Kurt Von­negut

Watch the Open­ing Cred­its of an Imag­i­nary 70s Cop Show Star­ring Samuel Beck­ett

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

Take a Virtual Tour of the Lascaux Cave Paintings

Image via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

The Las­caux Caves enjoyed a qui­et exis­tence for some 17,000 years.

Then came the sum­mer of 1940, when four teens inves­ti­gat­ed what seemed to be a fox’s den on a hill near Mon­ti­gnac, hop­ing it might lead to an under­ground pas­sage­way of local leg­end.

Once inside, they dis­cov­ered the paint­ings that have intrigued us ever since, expand­ing our under­stand­ing of pre­his­toric art and human ori­gins, and caus­ing us to spec­u­late on things we’ll nev­er have an answer to.

The boys’ teacher reached out to sev­er­al pre­his­to­ri­ans, who authen­ti­cat­ed the fig­ures, arranged for them to be pho­tographed and sketched, and col­lect­ed a num­ber of bone and flint arti­facts from the caves’ floors.

By 1948, exca­va­tions and arti­fi­cial lights ren­dered the caves acces­si­ble to vis­i­tors, who arrived in droves — as many as 1,800 in a sin­gle day.

Less than 20 years lat­er, The Collector’s Rosie Lesso writes, the caves were in cri­sis, and per­ma­nent­ly closed to tourism:

…the heat, humid­i­ty and car­bon diox­ide of all those peo­ple crammed into the dark and air­less cave was caus­ing an imbal­ance in the cave’s nat­ur­al ecosys­tem, lead­ing to the over­growth of molds and fun­gus­es that threat­ened to oblit­er­ate the 
pre­his­toric paint­ings.

The lights that had helped vis­i­tors get an eye­ful of the paint­ings caused fad­ing and dis­col­oration that threat­ened their very exis­tence.

Declar­ing this major attrac­tion off lim­its was the right move, and those who make the jour­ney to the area won’t leave entire­ly dis­ap­point­ed. Las­caux IV, a painstak­ing repli­ca that opened to the pub­lic in 2016, offers even more verisimil­i­tude than the pre­vi­ous mod­el, 1983’s Las­caux II.

A hand­ful of researchers and main­te­nance work­ers are still per­mit­ted inside the actu­al caves, now a UNESCO World Her­itage site, but human pres­ence is lim­it­ed to an annu­al total of 800 hours, and every­one must be prop­er­ly out­fit­ted with ster­ile white over­alls, plas­tic head cov­er­ings, latex gloves, dou­ble shoe cov­ers, and LED fore­head lamps with which to view the paint­ings.

The rest of us rab­ble can get a healthy vir­tu­al taste of these vis­i­tors’ expe­ri­ence thanks to the dig­i­tal Las­caux col­lec­tion that the Nation­al Arche­ol­o­gy Muse­um cre­at­ed for the Min­istry of Cul­ture.

An inter­ac­tive tour offers close-up views of the famous paint­ings, with titles to ori­ent the view­er as to the par­tic­u­lars of what and where  — for exam­ple “red cow fol­lowed by her calf” in the Hall of the Bulls.

Click the but­ton in the low­er left for a more in-depth expert descrip­tion of the ele­ment being depict­ed:

The flat red col­or used for the sil­hou­ette is of a uni­for­mi­ty that is sel­dom attained, which implies a repeat­ed ges­ture start­ing from the same point, with com­ple­men­tary angles of pro­jec­tion of pig­ments. The out­lines have been cre­at­ed with a sten­cil, and only the hindquar­ters, horns and the line of the back have been laid down with a brush…The fact that the artist used the same pig­ment for both fig­ures with­out any pic­to­r­i­al tran­si­tion between them indi­cates that the fusion of the two sil­hou­ettes was inten­tion­al, indica­tive of the con­nec­tion between the calf and its moth­er. This duo was born of the same ges­ture, and the image of the off­spring is mere­ly the graph­ic exten­sion of that of its moth­er.

The inter­ac­tive vir­tu­al tour is fur­ther com­pli­ment­ed by a trove of his­toric pho­tographs and inter­views, geo­log­i­cal con­text, con­ser­va­tion updates and anthro­po­log­i­cal inter­pre­ta­tions sug­gest­ing the paint­ings had a func­tion well beyond visu­al art.

Begin your vir­tu­al inter­ac­tive vis­it to the Las­caux Cave here.

Relat­ed Con­tent 

Archae­ol­o­gists May Have Dis­cov­ered a Secret Lan­guage in Las­caux & Chau­vet Cave Paint­ings, Per­haps Reveal­ing a 20,000-Year-Old “Pro­to-Writ­ing” Sys­tem

Was a 32,000-Year-Old Cave Paint­ing the Ear­li­est Form of Cin­e­ma?

Alger­ian Cave Paint­ings Sug­gest Humans Did Mag­ic Mush­rooms 9,000 Years Ago

40,000-Year-Old Sym­bols Found in Caves World­wide May Be the Ear­li­est Writ­ten Lan­guage

– Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author, most recent­ly, of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo and Cre­ative, Not Famous Activ­i­ty Book. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

A Map of All the Countries Mentioned in the Bible: What The Countries Were Called Then, and Now

“For most of the last two thou­sand years, the Bible has been vir­tu­al­ly the only his­to­ry book used in West­ern civ­i­liza­tion,” writes Isaac Asi­mov in his Guide to the Bible. “Even today, it remains the most pop­u­lar, and its view of ancient his­to­ry is still more wide­ly and com­mon­ly known than is that of any oth­er.” As a result, “mil­lions of peo­ple today know of Neb­uchad­nez­zar, and have nev­er heard of Per­i­cles, sim­ply because Neb­uchad­nez­zar is men­tioned promi­nent­ly in the Bible and Per­i­cles is nev­er men­tioned at all.” That same dis­pro­por­tion­ate recog­ni­tion is accord­ed to “minor Egypt­ian pharaohs” like Shishak and Necho, “peo­ple whose very exis­tence is doubt­ful” like Nim­rod and the Queen of She­ba, and “small towns in Canaan, such as Shechem and Bethel.”

Asi­mov notes that “only that is known about such places as hap­pens to be men­tioned in the Bible. Ecbatana, the cap­i­tal of the Medi­an Empire, is remem­bered in con­nec­tion with the sto­ry of Tobit, but its ear­li­er and lat­er his­to­ry are dim indeed to most peo­ple, who might be sur­prised to know that it still exists today as a large provin­cial cap­i­tal in the mod­ern nation of Iran.” In the video from Hochela­ga above, we learn that Iran, then called Per­sia, is cel­e­brat­ed in the Bible “for end­ing the Jew­ish exile and return­ing Israel to its home­land. The Book of Usa­iah gives a spe­cial shout-out to its King, Cyrus the Great: he is giv­en the title ‘anoint­ed one,’ or ‘mes­si­ah.’ ”

Though “Per­sia has played a huge role in the his­to­ry of the region, and at a time was one of the largest empires of its day,” it’s just one of the sur­pris­ing­ly many lands to receive Bib­li­cal acknowl­edge­ment. As Hochela­ga cre­ator Tom­my Trelawny makes clear, “when the Bible was writ­ten, the coun­tries as we know them today did­n’t even exist.” But though the con­cept of the mod­ern nation-state had­n’t yet come into being, the places that would give rise to a fair few of the nation-states in the twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry cer­tain­ly had: “shout-out to Egypt, Lebanon, Israel, Per­sia, Cyprus, Greece, Italy, and Spain, that still exist today, or at least go by the names that appear in the Bible.”

You may notice, Trelawny adds, that “many of these exot­ic lands are men­tioned in the sto­ry of King Solomon’s tem­ple, and how pre­cious raw mate­ri­als were import­ed from far­away places, from the strongest Lebanese cedars to the finest Indi­an ivories.” It hard­ly mat­ters “whether King Solomon was even real; we know these geo­graph­i­cal regions exist today, and that Bib­li­cal writ­ers seemed to know of them as well.” As depict­ed in the Bible or oth­er sources, the ancient world can seem scarce­ly rec­og­niz­able to us. But if we make the nec­es­sary adjust­ments to our per­spec­tive, we can see a process of glob­al­iza­tion not dis­sim­i­lar to what we see in our own soci­eties — whose fas­ci­na­tion with dis­tant lands and expen­sive lux­u­ries seems hard­ly to have dimin­ished over the mil­len­nia.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Lit­er­ary Crit­ic Northrop Frye Teach­es “The Bible and Eng­lish Lit­er­a­ture”: All 25 Lec­tures Free Online

Chris­tian­i­ty Through Its Scrip­tures: A Free Course from Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty

Intro­duc­tion to the Old Tes­ta­ment: A Free Yale Course

Intro­duc­tion to New Tes­ta­ment His­to­ry and Lit­er­a­ture: A Free Yale Course

Ancient Israel: A Free Course from NYU

Isaac Asimov’s Guide to the Bible: A Wit­ty, Eru­dite Atheist’s Guide to the World’s Most Famous Book

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

Rome Reborn: A New 3D Virtual Model Lets You Fly Over the Great Monuments of Ancient Rome

Thir­teen years ago here on Open Cul­ture, we first fea­tured Rome Reborn 2.2, a dig­i­tal 3D mod­el of the ancient metrop­o­lis at the height of its glo­ry in the fourth cen­tu­ry. And that rebirth has con­tin­ued apace ever since, and just last week bore the fruit of Rome Reborn 4.0, through which you can get a fly­ing tour in the video above. Inter­cut with the com­put­er-gen­er­at­ed recon­struc­tions is footage of the ruins of the very same parts of the city as they exist in Rome today. The oppor­tu­ni­ty for com­par­i­son thus pro­vid­ed allows us to appre­ci­ate not just the upgrades in the lat­est Rome Reborn’s lev­el of detail, but also its degree of real­ism.

With each revi­sion, the fourth-cen­tu­ry Eter­nal City recre­at­ed in Rome Reborn looks more like real­i­ty and less like a video game. But that does­n’t mean you can’t get the same thrill of explor­ing it that you would from a video game, which is part of the appeal of load­ing up the lat­est ver­sion of the mod­el on the vir­tu­al-real­i­ty app Yorescape, a prod­uct of the “vir­tu­al tourism” com­pa­ny Fly­over Zone Pro­duc­tions found­ed by Rome Reborn’s project leader Bernard Frisch­er.

And it is Frisch­er him­self who leads the in-app tour of “sites exem­pli­fy­ing the city’s geog­ra­phy, mar­kets, tem­ples, and much, much more,” enriched by “Time Warps spread around the city that allow you to tog­gle between the view today and the view from the same van­tage point in antiq­ui­ty.”

This is heady stuff indeed for enthu­si­asts of ancient Rome, who will no doubt be eager to see for them­selves the new and improved dig­i­tal mod­els of ancient Roman struc­tures like the Cir­cus Max­imus, the Arch of Titus, the Por­ti­cus Livi­ae, and the Tem­ple of Min­er­va. These and many oth­ers besides appear in the Rome Reborn 4.0 demo reel just above, which shows off the cul­mi­na­tion of 27 years of work so far by Frisch­er and his team. A dig­i­tal archae­ol­o­gist at Indi­ana Uni­ver­si­ty, Pro­fes­sor Frisch­er has point­ed out still-absent fea­tures to come, such as “avatars infused with AI” with whom the twen­ty-first-cen­tu­ry tourist can inter­act. We’ll have to wait for future iter­a­tions to do so, but sure­ly we can sum­mon the patience by remem­ber­ing that Rome isn’t reborn in a day.

Relat­ed con­tent:

An Ani­mat­ed Recon­struc­tion of Ancient Rome: Take A 30-Minute Stroll Through the City’s Vir­tu­al­ly-Recre­at­ed Streets

A Huge Scale Mod­el Show­ing Ancient Rome at Its Archi­tec­tur­al Peak (Built Between 1933 and 1937)

The Chang­ing Land­scape of Ancient Rome: A Free Online Course from Sapien­za Uni­ver­si­ty of Rome

An 8‑Minute Ani­mat­ed Flight Over Ancient Rome

The Old­est Known Pho­tographs of Rome (1841–1871)

High-Res­o­lu­tion Walk­ing Tours of Italy’s Most His­toric Places: The Colos­se­um, Pom­peii, St. Peter’s Basil­i­ca & More

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

Napoleon’s Kindle: Discover the Miniaturized Traveling Library That the Emperor Took on Military Campaigns

Every piece of tech­nol­o­gy has a prece­dent. Most have sev­er­al dif­fer­ent types of prece­dents. You’ve prob­a­bly used (and may well own) an eBook read­er, for instance, but what would have afford­ed you a selec­tion of read­ing mate­r­i­al two or three cen­turies ago? If you were a Jacobean Eng­lish­man of means, you might have used the kind of trav­el­ing library we fea­tured in 2017, a hand­some portable case cus­tom-made for your books. (If you’re Tom Stop­pard in the 21st cen­tu­ry, you still do.) If you were Napoleon, who seemed to love books as much as he loved mil­i­tary pow­er — he did­n’t just amass a vast col­lec­tion of them, but kept a per­son­al librar­i­an to over­see it — you’d take it a big step fur­ther.

“Many of Napoleon’s biog­ra­phers have inci­den­tal­ly men­tioned that he […] used to car­ry about a cer­tain num­ber of favorite books wher­ev­er he went, whether trav­el­ing or camp­ing,” says an 1885 Sacra­men­to Dai­ly Union arti­cle post­ed by Austin Kleon, “but it is not gen­er­al­ly known that he made sev­er­al plans for the con­struc­tion of portable libraries which were to form part of his bag­gage.” The piece’s main source, a Lou­vre librar­i­an who grew up as the son of one of Napoleon’s librar­i­ans, recalls from his father’s sto­ries that “for a long time Napoleon used to car­ry about the books he required in sev­er­al box­es hold­ing about six­ty vol­umes each,” each box first made of mahogany and lat­er of more sol­id leather-cov­ered oak. “The inside was lined with green leather or vel­vet, and the books were bound in moroc­co,” an even soft­er leather most often used for book­bind­ing.

To use this ear­ly trav­el­ing library, Napoleon had his atten­dants con­sult “a cat­a­logue for each case, with a cor­re­spond­ing num­ber upon every vol­ume, so that there was nev­er a moment’s delay in pick­ing out any book that was want­ed.” This worked well enough for a while, but even­tu­al­ly “Napoleon found that many books which he want­ed to con­sult were not includ­ed in the col­lec­tion,” for obvi­ous rea­sons of space. And so, on July 8, 1803, he sent his librar­i­an these orders:

The Emper­or wish­es you to form a trav­el­ing library of one thou­sand vol­umes in small 12mo and print­ed in hand­some type. It is his Majesty’s inten­tion to have these works print­ed for his spe­cial use, and in order to econ­o­mize space there is to be no mar­gin to them. They should con­tain from five hun­dred to six hun­dred pages, and be bound in cov­ers as flex­i­ble as pos­si­ble and with spring backs. There should be forty works on reli­gion, forty dra­mat­ic works, forty vol­umes of epic and six­ty of oth­er poet­ry, one hun­dred nov­els and six­ty vol­umes of his­to­ry, the remain­der being his­tor­i­cal mem­oirs of every peri­od.

In sum: not only did Napoleon pos­sess a trav­el­ing library, but when that trav­el­ing library proved too cum­ber­some for his many and var­ied lit­er­ary demands, he had a whole new set of not just portable book cas­es but even more portable books made for him. (You can see how they looked packed away in the image tweet­ed by Cork Coun­ty Library above.) This pre­fig­ured in a high­ly ana­log man­ner the dig­i­tal-age con­cept of recre­at­ing books in anoth­er for­mat specif­i­cal­ly for com­pact­ness and con­ve­nience — the kind of com­pact­ness and con­ve­nience now increas­ing­ly avail­able to all of us today, and to a degree Napoleon nev­er could have imag­ined, let alone demand­ed. It may be good to be the Emper­or, but in many ways, it’s bet­ter to be a read­er in the 21st cen­tu­ry.

Note: This post was orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished in 2017. Giv­en that Napoleon is back in the news, with the new Rid­ley Scott film, we’re bring­ing it back.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Dis­cov­er the Jacobean Trav­el­ing Library: The 17th Cen­tu­ry Pre­cur­sor to the Kin­dle

Napoleon’s Eng­lish Lessons: How the Mil­i­tary Leader Stud­ied Eng­lish to Escape the Bore­dom of Life in Exile

Why Is Napoleon’s Hand Always in His Waist­coat?: The Ori­gins of This Dis­tinc­tive Pose Explained

Napoleon’s Dis­as­trous Inva­sion of Rus­sia Detailed in an 1869 Data Visu­al­iza­tion: It’s Been Called “the Best Sta­tis­ti­cal Graph­ic Ever Drawn”

Behold the “Book Wheel”: The Renais­sance Inven­tion Cre­at­ed to Make Books Portable & Help Schol­ars Study (1588)

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

The New York Public Library Presents an Archive of 860,000 Historical Images: Download Medieval Manuscripts, Japanese Prints, William Blake Illustrations & More

Back when we last fea­tured the New York Pub­lic Library’s dig­i­tal col­lec­tions in 2016, they con­tained about 160,000 high-res­o­lu­tion images from var­i­ous his­tor­i­cal peri­ods. This seemed like a fair­ly vast archive at the time, but in the years since, that num­ber has grown to more than 860,000. If it was dif­fi­cult to know where to begin explor­ing it sev­en years ago — when it already con­tained such dig­i­tized trea­sures as the Depres­sion-era Farm Secu­ri­ty Admin­is­tra­tion pho­tographs tak­en by Dorothea Lange, Walk­er Evans, and Gor­don Parks, Walt Whit­man’s hand­writ­ten pref­ace to Spec­i­men Days, Thomas Jefferson’s list of books for a pri­vate library, and six­teenth-cen­tu­ry illus­tra­tions for The Tale of Gen­ji — it can hard­ly be eas­i­er now.

Or rather, it can hard­ly be eas­i­er unless you start with the NYPL dig­i­tal col­lec­tions’ pub­lic domain picks, a sec­tion of the site that, as of this writ­ing, orga­nizes thou­sands and thou­sands of its hold­ings into thir­teen brows­able and intrigu­ing cat­e­gories.

These include the FSA pho­tos, but also book illus­tra­tions by William Blake, edi­tions of The Negro Trav­el­er’s Green Book (as pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured here on Open Cul­ture), the music and lyrics for Amer­i­can pop­u­lar songs, the papers of Walt Whit­man, and the more than 42,000 stereo­scop­ic prints of the Robert N. Den­nis col­lec­tion, which cap­ture an ear­ly form of 3D views of a fast-devel­op­ing (and, often, now-unrec­og­niz­able) Amer­i­can con­ti­nent.

Enthu­si­asts of New York City itself will no doubt make straight for sec­tions like “chang­ing New York,” “pho­tographs of Ellis Island, 1902–1913,” and “album de la con­struc­tion de la Stat­ue de la Lib­erté.” Soon after after its ded­i­ca­tion in 1886, the Stat­ue of Lib­er­ty came to sym­bol­ize not just a city, and not just a coun­try, but the very con­cept of Amer­i­can civ­i­liza­tion and the grand cul­tur­al exchange it had already begun to con­duct with the rest of the world. 137 years lat­er, you can spend a lit­tle time in the NYPL’s dig­i­tal col­lec­tions and turn up every­thing from illu­mi­nat­ed man­u­scripts from medieval and Renais­sance Europe to Japan­ese wood­block prints to col­or draw­ings of Indi­an life in the eigh­teenth and nine­teenth cen­turies — and you don’t have to be any­where near New York to do so. Enter the NYPL dig­i­tal col­lec­tions here.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Food­ie Alert: New York Pub­lic Library Presents an Archive of 17,000 Restau­rant Menus (1851–2008)

100,000+ Won­der­ful Pieces of The­ater Ephemera Dig­i­tized by The New York Pub­lic Library

The “Weird Objects” in the New York Pub­lic Library’s Col­lec­tions: Vir­ginia Woolf’s Cane, Charles Dick­ens’ Let­ter Open­er, Walt Whitman’s Hair & More

John Cage Unbound: A New Dig­i­tal Archive Pre­sent­ed by The New York Pub­lic Library

Immac­u­late­ly Restored Film Lets You Revis­it Life in New York City in 1911

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

Behold Ancient Egyptian, Greek & Roman Sculptures in Their Original Color

There was a time when we imag­ined that most ancient sculp­ture nev­er had any col­or except for that of the stone from which it was hewed. Doubt fell upon that notion as long ago as the eigh­teenth cen­tu­ry, when archae­o­log­i­cal dig­ging in Pom­peii and Her­cu­la­neum brought up stat­ues whose col­or had been pre­served, but only in recent years has it come to be pre­sent­ed as an explod­ed myth. Though some of the cov­er­age of the false “white­ness” of ancient Egypt­ian, Greek, and Roman sculp­ture has divid­ed along drea­ri­ly pre­dictable twen­ty-first-cen­tu­ry cul­tur­al bat­tle lines, this moment has also pre­sent­ed an oppor­tu­ni­ty to stage fas­ci­nat­ing, even ground­break­ing exhi­bi­tions.

Take Chro­ma: Ancient Sculp­ture in Col­or, which ran from the sum­mer of last year to the spring of this year at the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Muse­um of Art. You can still see some of its dis­plays in the Smarthis­to­ry video at the top of the post, in which art his­to­ri­ans Eliz­a­beth Macaulay and Beth Har­ris dis­cuss the “world of Tech­ni­col­or” that was antiq­ui­ty, the Renais­sance ori­gins of the “idea that ancient sculp­ture was not paint­ed,” and the mod­ern attempts to recon­struct the sculp­tur­al col­or schemes almost total­ly lost to time.

Archi­tect Vinzenz Brinkmann goes deep­er into these sub­jects in the video from the Met itself just above, pay­ing spe­cial atten­tion to the muse­um’s bust of Caligu­la — not the finest emper­or Rome ever had, to put it mild­ly, but one whose face has become a promis­ing can­vas for the restora­tion of col­or.

You can see much more of Chro­ma in the Art Trip tour video just above. Its won­ders include not just gen­uine pieces of ancient sculp­ture, but strik­ing­ly col­or­ful recon­struc­tions of a finial in the form of a sphinx, a Pom­pei­ian stat­ue of the god­dess Artemis, a bat­tle-depict­ing side of the Alexan­der Sar­coph­a­gus, and “a mar­ble archer in the cos­tume of a horse­man of the peo­ples to the north and east of Greece,” to name just a few. You may pre­fer these his­tor­i­cal­ly edu­cat­ed col­oriza­tions to the aus­tere mono­chrome fig­ures you grew up see­ing in text­books, or you may appre­ci­ate after all the kind of ele­gance that only cen­turies of ruin can bestow. Either way, your rela­tion­ship to the ancient world will nev­er be quite the same.

Relat­ed con­tent:

The Met­ro­pol­i­tan Muse­um of Art Restores the Orig­i­nal Col­ors to Ancient Stat­ues

How Ancient Greek Stat­ues Real­ly Looked: Research Reveals Their Bold, Bright Col­ors and Pat­terns

Roman Stat­ues Weren’t White; They Were Once Paint­ed in Vivid, Bright Col­ors

The Met Dig­i­tal­ly Restores the Col­ors of an Ancient Egypt­ian Tem­ple, Using Pro­jec­tion Map­ping Tech­nol­o­gy

The Mak­ing of a Mar­ble Sculp­ture: See Every Stage of the Process, from the Quar­ry to the Stu­dio

Why Most Ancient Civ­i­liza­tions Had No Word for the Col­or Blue

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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