Historians have long searched for the “voices” of the past, crafting stories past actors might have told from the records they leave behind. They sift through endless boxes of old letters, reports,  memos, maps, photos, blueprints, and testimonies. But what are the chances the historian will hear the literal voice of a historical actor they study?

Dr. J. Martin Vest pieces together the history of a family that, instead of writing letters, used nineteenth-century wax cylinder recordings to correspond across the country. In this often-obscured part of the history of recording, we learn how in the same way a family might settle into the parlor and listen to a popular music record, they might also record themselves at their most intimate moments, for an audience on a much smaller scale.

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Historian Biographies

J. Martin Vest is a historian of nineteenth and twentieth century United States. His research and teaching focuses are cultural history, the history of science, technology and medicine, the history of sound and the senses, and the history of capitalism. His current book project, “Vox Machinae: Phonographs and the Birth of Sonic Modernity,” explores the evolution of early sound recording and playback technologies, from the phonograph exhibitions of 1877-1878, through the rise of the home phonograph market after 1900, paying particular attention to the entanglements of phonographic technology with popular understandings of sound, hearing, and social difference. His more recent work looks at the shifting medical, scientific, and commercial understanding of vision and hearing in the late nineteenth century.

Production Credits

Segment Producers: J. Martin Vest

Host and Season Producer: Daniela Sheinin

Executive Producer: Gregory Parker 

Editorial Board: Gregory Parker, Daniela Sheinin, Melanie Tanielian, Matt Villeneuve 

Presented by the University of Michigan Department of History

© 2019 Regents of the University of Michigan

Image: Museo nazionale della scienza e della tecnologia Leonardo da Vinci, Milano, CC BY-SA 4.0.