Thursday, March 27, 2008

The First Recorded Voice

On April 9, 1860 a Parisian inventor named Edouard-Leon Scott de Martinville was trying to capture an image of sound so he could study it visually. To do this, he invented a device called a phonautograph to scratch sound waves onto a sheet of paper, blackened by the smoke of an oil lamp.

He never intended to play the sound back audibly, but fortunately this piece of blackened paper was preserved in an archive in Paris. It is a 10 second recording of a person singing "Au clair de la lune, Pierrot repondit" which translates to "By the light of the moon, Pierrot replied".

This month, David Giovannoni, an audio historian, learned of the paper's existence and he traveled to France to make very high quality digital scans of the paper. Scientists at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California converted the scans into sound using technology developed to preserve early sound recordings.

This month, for the first time ever, the world can hear this first 1860 recording. Don't set you expectations too high for it is in very rough shape, but here is the earliest known vocal sound:

Most of us think of Thomas Edison and his phonograph as the earliest recordings, but in fact Mr. Edison recordings date from 1888. His real claim to fame is not the first audio recording, but the first device to play back an audio recording.

The fine looking woman whose picture accompanies this post has nothing to do with Mr. Scott de Martinville. I picked her photo because it was taken in Paris in 1860. She is Sarah Ellen Frances Mason (1818-1865) and was the wife of a wealthy Bostonian Robert Means Mason (1810-1879). She had severe asthma and the doctors encouraged her to travel to improve her health, which placed her in Paris in 1860.

I have always wondered what Abe Lincoln's voice sounded like...more than anything else in US History, I would love to be able to hear the way he read his famous speeches and the way he spoke in every day conversation. I have always thought that he pre-dated recorded sound. And now I find out he didn't pre-date it, he simply was in the wrong city. Sigh.

Friday, March 21, 2008

The Fascinating Story of Collyers Mansion

 On another one of my Internet Adventures, I stumbled across a tidbit: whenever an East Coast fire department is sent out to do a rescue from a cluttered home, they call that a Collyer's Mansion rescue. Where, I wondered, did that term originate?

That sent me on a wild Google search to find the answer. I think you'll find this story very interesting, so I encourage you to stick around for this very long post. Here goes.

1880s: Herman Collyer, a Manhattan gynecologist, and Susie Frost had two sons: Homer born in 1881 and Langley born in 1885. They also had a daughter Susan who died in infancy in 1880.

Herman Collyer bought the family a 3 story (plus basement) mansion at 2078 Fifth Avenue at 128th Street in Harlem, New York City, New York. At the time, the area was semi-rural and the borough of Harlem was very luxurious and full of mansions including the estate of James Roosevelt (FDR's father). Both Homer and Langley attended nearby Columbia University and earned degrees in engineering and law respectively.

 1900s: By 1904, the subway opened about the same time as real estate crashed, caused by overbuilding and speculation. This left many vacant buildings that could be occupied at low cost, and the subway offered the perfect opportunity for the poor to flourish in the area. The neighborhood began to change and the brothers gradually withdrew from the public view.

In 1909 for unknown reasons, Dr. Herman Collyer left the family when Homer was 28 and Langley was 24.

1920s: Herman died in 1923 and his wife Susie inherited his vast collection of furniture, medical equipment and books. By 1929, Susie had also passed away.

 1930s: The brothers had now inherited the mansion, and their reclusiveness - neither brother worked - fueled rumors of valuable stashes within the house which, in turn, led to a series of break-ins. As their eccentricity grew, the brothers boarded up the windows and began booby-trapping the house using their engineering skills.

Homer, who had previously been crippled by rheumatism, went blind in 1933. Langley devised a remedy diet for Homer of 100 oranges a week accompanied by black bread and peanut butter.

About this time, the mansion's gas, telephone, electricity and water were turned off for failure to pay bills. The brothers heated the house with a kerosene heater and attempted to convert a Model T into a device to generate electricity. Langley brought water home from a park four blocks away.

This photo of Langley shows him waiting to testify at the felony trial of George Smith who was accused of breaking in to a former Collyer residence nearby. He collected the stack of newspapers on his subway ride to take them home, for when his brother regained his eyesight.

1942: After falling behind on their mortgage, the Bowery Savings Bank began eviction procedures. The police were unsuccessful in forcing their way in due to a wall of junk piled floor to ceiling behind the door. At this point, Langley handed the police a check for $6,700 that paid off the entire mortgage (equivalent to $100,000 in today's dollars).
 March 21, 1947: The 122nd police precinct received an anonymous call stating that there was a dead body in the Collyer Mansion. With no doorbell, telephone, and locked doors the police had a very difficult time getting in. Eventually a crew of seven men began pulling out all the junk that was blocking their way and throwing it on the street below.

The brownstone's foyer was completely filled with newspapers, folding beds, chairs, boxes, and an unimagineable array of junk. Patrolman William Baker eventually broke into a second story bedroom filled with a similar array of items. After two hours of climbing through the debris, the body of Homer Collyer was found in a chair wearing a bathrobe.

The only way to bring the body out was to take it by ladder out the second floor window. The medical examiner said that Homer had been dead no more than 10 hours, and that it could not account for the stench coming from the house. Therefore, the search began for Langley.
By this time, a crowd of over 600 onlookers had gathered.

 Work began clearing the rubbish from the house. In all 103 tons were removed from the house, much of it stacked floor to ceiling in each of the mansion's 20 rooms. Note the chandelier hanging from the ceiling in this photograph - the policemen are standing on several feet of junk, with their heads touching the ceiling in these very tall rooms.

The search continued for days and over 30,000 books, a horse's jaw, a complete human skeleton, a two-headed baby in a jar, a Steinway piano, an early X-Ray machine, and uncountable bundles of newspapers were removed.

 A New York City building inspector was also called in to evaulate the safety of continuing the search for Langley and the removal of the debris.
  While the search continued in the house, police decided to close an entire block of 5th Avenue in order to keep the crowds back so the workmen could remove the debris and load it into vans or sanitation trucks, as appropriate.
  On April 1st, Homer Collyer was buried. Police were hopeful that Langley would show up at the funeral, but that did not happen. The removal of debris from the mansion continued.
 Many pianos were removed from the home during the search. On April 8, 1947, the body of Langley Collyer was found a mere 8 feet from where Homer was found. Three bundles of newspaper and a suitcase had covered his body. It appeared that Langley had been crawling through a newspaper tunnel to take food to his paralyzed brother and became the victim of his own booby-trap. His brother Homer, blind and paralyzed, died of starvation
several days later.

 Other items removed from the house included baby carriages, bicycles, old food, guns, glass chandeliers, bowling balls, sawhorses, plaster busts, Susie Collyer's hope chests, pickled human organs, eight cats, a Model T chassis, fourteen pianos, many musical instruments (banjos, violins, accordians, gramophones, clavicords), and newspapers that were several decades old.

 Items from the home were auctioned in the summer of 1947 for a total of $2,000. The total value of their estate was $91,000 including $20,000 in jewelry, cash and securities.
Unfortunately, the home was deemed to be in such dilapidated condition that the only alternative was to demolish it. The homesite is now the location of a park.

So there you have it, the complete story behind the term Collyer's Mansion. It is not a happy story, but it is indeed a part of American History that I was not aware of until just this week.