Switcheroo: The Hijacking of a Phonographic Time Capsule (1889)

Sixty-six years ago today, a cylinder recording was retrieved from a box below the cornerstone of a skyscraper where it had been sealed away for sixty-six years.  It was supposed to contain messages to the future spoken by the leadership of the institution that had built the skyscraper.  But when it was played back, it turned out to contain something else—something totally unexpected.  Custodians of the recording have since tried to square what was on the cylinder with what was supposed to be on it, effectively trying to minimize the discrepancy.  But today, on the sixty-sixth anniversary of the opening of the box, I’d like to reveal what the recording really is, and who made it.  I’ll also share some thoughts about how it could have ended up where it was.  While there’s some uncertainty as to the details, it looks suspiciously as though someone perpetrated a daring switcheroo 132 years ago, with nobody ever being the wiser.  That is, until today.

*  *  *

During the 1890s, the tallest building in New York City was the New York World Building, so named for the prominent city newspaper—then owned by Joseph Pulitzer—which it served as headquarters.  It was quite a building, by all accounts, and I’m sorry it’s not still standing.  But if it were, I wouldn’t be able to tell the story that follows, so I guess its demolition has had at least that much of a silver lining.

The laying of its cornerstone on October 30, 1889, was the occasion of an elaborate ceremonial program with an all-star roster of attendees and participants.  An opening prayer was followed by speeches by Colonel John Albert Cockerill, the World‘s managing editor; Chauncey Depew, eminent Republican politician and future senator; and John Bennett Hill, Governor of New York; after which Cockerill read a telegram from Joseph Pulitzer, who was then in Wiesbaden, Germany, on a round-the-world trip:

God grant that this structure be the enduring home of a newspaper forever unsatisfied with merely printing news—forever fighting every form of wrong—forever Independent—forever advancing in enlightenment and progress—forever wedded to truly Democratic ideas—forever aspiring to be a moral force—forever rising to a higher plane of perfection as a Public Institution.

God grant that THE WORLD may forever strive towards the highest ideals—be both a daily school-house and a daily forum—both a daily teacher and a daily tribune—an instrument of Justice, a terror to crime, an aid in education, an exponent of true Americanism.

Let it ever be remembered that this edifice owes its existence to the public; that its architect is popular favor; that its moral corner-stone is love of Liberty and Justice; that its every stone comes from the people and represents public approval for public services rendered.

God forbid that the vast army following the standard of THE WORLD should in this or future generations ever find it faithless to those ideas and moral principles to which alone it owes its life and without which I would rather have it perish.

JOSEPH PULITZER.

But I’m most interested here in what came next: Cockerill read out a list of the contents of a hermetically sealed box that was to be interred beneath the cornerstone.  Today we’d call this a “time capsule,” but that expression didn’t come into vogue until the 1930s, so back then it was just a “box.”  The list was published in the next day’s World and included an assortment of recent newspapers; photographs of the Pulitzer family; the architectural plans of the new building; a set of coins all dated either 1889 (the current year) or 1883 (the year Joseph Pulitzer had bought the World); copies of the latest World almanac and office directory, plus the latest Trow’s city directory; the texts of Pulitzer’s telegram and Chauncey Depew’s speech neatly written out on vellum; and the three items to which I particularly want to draw your attention here: “Two phonographic cylinders and one graphophone cylinder containing words spoken by members of THE WORLD staff.”

In place of “words,” a commemorative booklet that likewise listed the cornerstone’s contents substituted the loftier expression “messages to posterity.”

Notice the reference to two different cylinder formats.  Today “phonographic” is a reasonably generic term, but back in 1889, a “phonographic” cylinder was a solid wax cylinder with a tapered interior for use on Thomas Edison’s phonograph, whereas a “graphophone” cylinder was an ozokerite-coated cardboard cylinder—longer, with a smaller but constant diameter—for use on the Bell-Tainter graphophone.  Within a couple years of the laying of the cornerstone, the Edison phonograph would succeed in driving the Bell-Tainter graphophone out of the market, establishing itself as the industry’s standard machine for years to come.  But in 1889, these two mutually incompatible systems were still locked in fierce competition with each other, even though both were controlled throughout the United States by the North American Phonograph Company, which had committed to promoting them impartially.  Perhaps the World staff had wanted to hedge its bets, unsure which of the two cylinder formats would stand a better chance of being playable in the distant future.

In case anyone wanted to know who specifically had spoken these messages to posterity, and what exactly they’d said in them, the World provided a transcript on page two of the next day’s paper:

MESSAGES IN THE PHONOGRAPH.

The phonograph cylinder referred to as having been placed in the box and in the corner stone, contained on its waxen surface the following messages spoken upon it by the leading members of THE WORLD’s executive and editorial staff.  These messages, Mr. Edison says, can be repeated in the exact voice, accent and emphasis of the various speakers if the cylinder is placed upon the instrument half a century hence.  First upon this imperishable cylinder is the cabled message of Mr. Pulitzer, spoken upon it by Mr. Davis, with the following sentiments introducing and following it:

The sentiments of Joseph Pulitzer, as expressed in the following cablegram received this day from Wiesbaden, Germany, should be the shibboleth of his great-great-gran[d]children.  These are his words:

[Then followed Mr. Pulitzer’s cable despatch, printed before in this account.]

Let his descendants, the future proprietors of the great journal he has established, adopt these sentiments, and they will do justice to his memory and be an honor to their country.

WILLIAM L. DAVIS.

Then followed the other messages:

Oct. 10, 1889.—In this year, A. D. 1889, the American Republic, in the 103d year of its independence, is great, prosperous, free and contented.  The press, which is almost a co-ordinate branch of our system, is influential, and is the institution to which all are indebted to good order and the equal administration of the laws.  With the public-school system, it constitutes the palladium of our liberties.  Foremost in the ranks of journalism is the New York WORLD newspaper.  This building, erected by its owner and editor, Joseph Pulitzer, attests the power and popularity of this newspaper, which has an average circulation daily of more than 300,000 copies.  The building which stands upon this cornerstone is dedicated in the spirit expressed in this line:

“Here shall the Press the People’s rights maintain,
Unawed by influence, unbribed by gain.”

JOHN A. COCKERILL.

Oct. 10, 1889.—May this WORLD newspaper not only long outlive us, the employees of Mr. Joseph Pulitzer, but outlive this building itself and another and yet another erected in turn to respond to its material growth.  May its influence through the generations continue, as now, consistent, constant and forcible in behalf of the best interests of the country at large and of exact justice to the citizen—a champion of free institutions, an enemy to plutocracy in politics, a friend to the poor and oppressed.

BALLARD SMITH.

Nothing is more essential to a government of the people, by the people, for the people, than a free press dedicated to the public service and conducted with independence, honesty, courage and ability in the interest of the people.  The New York WORLD, under Joseph Pulitzer, has been and is such a newspaper.  Long may he live to keep it true to its high ideals and to inspire its workers with his lofty and unflagging spirit.

W. H. MERRILL.

The one supreme fact in modern life is the in[fluence of newspapers.  Its power is formidable, and] yet it is a power incapable of abuse, because the moment it allies itself to the service of wrong it ceases to be power and becomes feebleness.

GEORGE CARY EGGLESTON.

The wording highlighted above in red is my best guess as to how the bottom line of the column should read. Can anyone else do better?

I regard the building, the corner-stone of which is to be laid to-day, as one of the proudest monuments which a country can boast.  It is erected not in commemoration of the great works of the dead, but of the living.  It is a monument to the genius, independence, enterprise and energy of the man who built up THE WORLD and placed it at the head of American journalism.

DOUGLAS A. LEVIEN.

This building is the monument of a free people to honest endeavor and uprightness.  It proves that the world is better for having one man whose happiness it is to protect the people and fight their battles.  THE WORLD is the medium and Joseph Pulitzer the man.

JAMES F. GRAHAM.

Here is the apotheosis of pluck and honesty in the service of the people.  Grand, enduring and towering to the skies above all its competitors, it will be a reminder and an incentive to young men who stand to-day where its owner stood only a quarter of a century ago.  Nothing is impossible to the young.

C. W. FISK.

Was not Tennyson prophetic of to-day when he wrote the line: “The great WORLD swings forever down the ringing grooves of change?”

EDWARD S. VAN ZILE.

This transcript is identified as representing the text of “the” phonograph cylinder put into the box, singular, but the inventory states that there were actually three cylinders: two phonograph cylinders and one graphophone cylinder.  What should we make of that?  Well—

The amount of content an Edison phonograph cylinder could hold depended on the speed at which it was set to rotate, which was variable.  For everyday business dictation purposes, some people reportedly ran the machine slowly enough to get upwards of ten minutes or 1100 words on a single cylinder.  But whenever audio quality was valued—as it would presumably have been in this instance—speeds during this period gravitated towards the 80-150 rpm range, corresponding to roughly three to five minutes per cylinder.  At approximately 820 words (including Pulitzer’s telegram), the text given in the newspaper should have taken around seven minutes to utter aloud at a typical rate for public speaking.  It should thus have required at least two Edison phonograph cylinders to hold it at decent quality (according to the standards of the time), not just one.  Meanwhile, the Bell-Tainter graphophone was designed to run at a fixed speed of 160 rpm for a maximum duration of 3:45 per cylinder.  This wouldn’t have been enough to hold the whole text published in the newspaper if the goal had been redundancy—that is, to record the whole program twice in the hope that at least one copy of it would remain playable.  But if we can already infer that the text must have been spread out across at least two cylinders, it’s no great stretch to suppose it might have been spread out judiciously across all three, averaging roughly 275 words per cylinder, which wouldn’t have been at all unreasonable.

Thomas Edison personally attended the ceremony, so he might have offered his optimistic prediction about how the recordings would hold up over time right there on the spot: “These messages, Mr. Edison says, can be repeated in the exact voice, accent and emphasis of the various speakers if the cylinder is placed upon the instrument half a century hence.”  Half a century hence translates to 1939, and who, from the vantage point of 1889, could have imagined what futuristic fantasies might be realized by then?

Joseph Pulitzer was abroad in Germany when the cornerstone was laid, but the Pulitzer family was represented in person at the ceremony by his four-year old son, Joseph Pulitzer, Jr.  “He is the handsomest lad I ever saw,” Edison reportedly said to the person next to him as the boy clambered up to smooth the cement for the cornerstone with a silver trowel.

Four-year-old Joseph Pulitzer, Jr., with his silver trowel at the laying of the cornerstone.  The World, Its History & Its New Home (New York: G. W. Turner, [1890?]), p. 11.

Once the cement had been ritually prepared in this manner, a big block of red sandstone began to move slowly towards its designated spot, supported by ropes and pulleys.  We read:

Already there had been put beneath it, in the course of stone above the pedestal course, the box 18 inches long by 12 wide, hermetically sealed, which contained so many interesting mementoes of the day.  The cavity had been covered with fire-proof paper, and just before the stone descended a number of people threw pennies on this paper, so that they might, in an humble way, have their share in the great structure which would be reared above it.

It’s fun to picture bystanders flinging Indian Head cents into the path of the descending cornerstone, maybe inspired by Cockerill’s description of the time capsule to want to leave behind some token of their own participation in the historic moment.  But of all the mementoes that were about to be sealed away for some distant future age, the recorded speeches were surely the most novel and impressive.  It’s true that this wasn’t the first time a sound recording had been put into a cornerstone, judging from a news report from ten years earlier:

The phonograph is destined to contribute to the contents of the little tin box which tradition appoints to be deposited in the corner-stone of public buildings.  At the laying of the corner-stone of the academy which Mr. Moody is building for Northfield, Mr. Sankey’s voice, in ‘Hold the Fort,’ phonographically preserved on sheet tinfoil, was among the curious contents of the box which was used.  The satisfaction with which some one will possibly hear Mr. Sankey sing fifty or sixty years after he is dead can be imagined, but not described.  (Bucks County Gazette [Bristol, Pennsylvania], Sept. 4, 1879, p. 1)

But as far as I’m aware, the laying of the New York World Building cornerstone on October 10, 1889, marked the first time anyone had ever sealed up spoken messages addressed to posterity in this way—a rare privilege evidently reserved to the most senior and important men in the World hierarchy, starting with Joseph Pulitzer’s own brother-in-law, Colonel William Leonard Davis.  These men had chosen their words with commensurate care, if we’re to judge from the published texts, and had likely scripted them out ahead of time in writing (which would then also have been available for print publication).

But back now to the cornerstone itself, which has nearly completed its descent:

When it had finally settled into its place Master Joseph marched over with his trowel in his hand and at 2:10 P. M. struck the stone three resounding blows with the trowel, saying: “It is Well Done.”  The crowd applauded and cheered.  The lad, having performed his duty, walked back again.  In after years he will fully appreciate the important part he played in yesterday’s ceremony.

*  *  *

Joseph Pulitzer Jr. died at the age of seventy on March 30, 1955, but by then he no longer went by “Joseph Pulitzer Jr.”: posterity knows him instead as “Joseph Pulitzer II,” while the name “Joseph Pulitzer Jr.” is now associated almost exclusively with his own son, Joseph Pulitzer III (1913-1993).  In the end, he had outlived the New York World, which he and his brothers had sold in 1931 to a competitor who had promptly shut it down.  The New York World Building itself outlived him, but only barely: at the time of his death, work had just begun on demolishing it to make way for a new ramp onto the Brooklyn Bridge.  He hadn’t forgotten about the time capsule, though, and one of his final acts was to request that its contents be given to the Columbia University School of Journalism.

The work of demolition proceeded apace for month after month, and for a while it looked as though Columbia University might be out of luck.  By the middle of the next January, Manhattan Borough President Hulan Jack “conceded that no cornerstone had been turned up and that the cornerstone box, containing records and other memorabilia of the cornerstone laying in October, 1889, probably was removed during a major overhaul of the ground floor in 1907 or 1908” (“Wreckers at The World Can’t Find Cornerstone,” New York Times, Jan. 17, 1956, p. 35).  But it finally turned up on February 9th: “The hermetically sealed copper box, 18 by 12 inches with brass handles, unexpectedly fell out of a mass of brick and mortar as the final columns of brownstone facing were being torn down, according to Mr. Jack” (“Pulitzer’s Marker Found by Wreckers,” New York Times, Feb. 10, 1956, p. 45).  It was solemnly opened in Jack’s office on February 15th.  Among the items that saw light again there after six and a half decades sealed in darkness were the three cylinder records, each one individually wrapped.

Detail of photograph of the contents of the time capsule shortly after unpacking.  The narrower, longer graphophone cylinder can be seen on the left with a photographic cabinet card resting on top of it.  The two phonograph cylinders are on the right.  New York Times, February 16, 1956, p. 31.

The Associated Press reported: “The cylinders were thought to contain remarks by World staff members.  Jack said the cylinders would be played as soon as possible” (“Opening of Newspaper Cornerstone Box Reveals 1887 Farm Problems,” Albuquerque Journal, February 17, 1956, p. 22).

It’s not clear just what happened to the cylinders from that point onward.  As we’ve seen, two of them were phonograph cylinders, while the other was a graphophone cylinder.  In 1956, it should have been considerably easier to find playback equipment for an Edison phonograph cylinder than for a Bell-Tainter graphophone cylinder, a far less common format that had been obsolete for much longer.  But strangely enough it’s the two Edison phonograph cylinders that seem to have vanished without a trace; maybe they had turned out upon unwrapping to be broken or catastrophically effloresced.  As for the graphophone cylinder, its current whereabouts are unknown too, but we at least have some audio supposed to have been transferred from it, posted here courtesy of Columbia University Libraries.

It’s not very good audio, but in spite of what you might think, that’s mostly not the fault of the primitive recording technology of the 1880s or of physical degradation over time.  Instead, the best available source seems to be an audiocassette copy of an open reel audio tape on which a modern spoken introduction is followed by a transfer of the cylinder said to have been “made in the research laboratory of Dictaphone Corporation.”  Unfortunately, both the spoken introduction and the transfer are significantly too fast and marred by a loud 60 Hertz mains hum, analog clipping, and what sounds like the occasional jostling of a loose jack—all problems that must have been introduced during the mid-to-late twentieth century in the process of transfer and/or duplication, and that should have been entirely preventable.  This is a shame, because even with these defects the recording from 1889 is remarkably clear and intelligible.

I haven’t attempted much in the way of restoration, but I have stretched the transfer to 120% of its initial length to bring the voices closer to a plausible speed (~175.6 rpm; the “official” 160 rpm is definitely too slow).  Here’s the result of that adjustment, followed by my transcription.

(1) Speaker #1: Office of the Metropolitan Phonograph Company, two-fifty-seven Fifth Avenue, New York City.  This is being dictated upon the phonograph-graphophone on Thursday, October the tenth, eighteen hundred and eighty-nine, and this cylinder will be, uh, put under the cornerstone of the New York World Building today.  The graphophone that is being used for this dictation is number one eighty-eight Type A, and this particular machine was made by the Western Electric Company of New York City.  Henry Lewis.

(2) Speaker #2: This graphophone was invented by Mister Bell and Mister Tainter of Washington, USA.  I don’t know the date of the patent.  Number three forty-one two eighty-eight of May the fourth, eighteen eighty-six.

Once upon a midnight dreary,
While I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious
Volume of forgotten lore,
Suddenly there came a tapping,
As of someone gently rapping,
Rapping at my chamber door:
“This is some visitor,” I muttered,
Only this and nothing more.

(3) Speaker #1: The New York baseball club has just won the league championship.

(4) Speaker #2: Hurrah for the New York baseball club!  This year, eighteen hundred and eighty-nine, has been a wonderful year for disasters.  The first of the year the Brooklyn gas works blew up, and the great cyclone they had blew down the bridge, the suspended bridge at Niagara Falls.   Later in the summer we had a great flood at Johnstown and the whole city was swept away.   And also in China and Japan they’ve had great floods, and a great landslide in Quebec, Ontario— no, not Ontario, it was in the city of Quebec in Canada.

(5) Speaker #1: Chicago wants to get the World’s Fair in eighteen ninety-two, but she won’t get it because New York is going to get there just the same.

(6) Speaker #2: The Transatlantic steamship The City of New York is the fastest boat now on record.  She makes the drou— the trip in less than six days.   Edison has just won his last suit from the Pittsburgh, uh, court—or, rather, from the Westinghouse Company.   Yours truly, A. W. Rose.

My identifications of the six segments numbered in parentheses with Speaker #1 and Speaker #2 are admittedly open to challenge.  At first, I thought there were three speakers, and I identified segments (3), (4), and (6) with a putative “Speaker #3.”  However, after comparing segments (2), (4), and (6) more directly with each other, I’ve concluded that the voice sounds the same in all of them.  In retrospect, I suspect I was led astray by the assumption that “The New York baseball club has just won the league championship. Hoorah for the New York baseball club!” would all have been spoken by the same person.  The fact that only two speakers identify themselves by name—Henry Lewis and A. W. Rose—further supports a conclusion that there were only two speakers.

If my calculations are correct, this cylinder spent 24,233 days sealed up in the cornerstone box: that’s sixty-six years, four months, and five days.  As I’m writing these words—on February 15, 2022, the sixty-sixth anniversary of the opening of the box—it has been 24,108 days since the cylinder was retrieved.  On June 20, 2022, it will have been out of the box for just as long as it was in the box.  It’s been available for people to listen to, and to puzzle over, for nearly half the span of its existence—surely long enough for some reasonable conclusions to have been drawn about it.

But what is it we’re hearing?

The contents of this cylinder obviously don’t match any part of the transcript published on page two of the New York World of October 11, 1889, which I’ve quoted in its entirety above.  As I’ve observed, though, it’s not certain that the transcript was meant to encompass all three cylinders.  So if we refer only to the brief description given in the New York World‘s list of time-capsule contents, we’d expect the cylinder to contain “words spoken by members of THE WORLD staff.”  And that’s precisely what custodians of the recording have long assumed it does contain.  The spoken introduction preceding the cylinder transfer states that it “contained recordings by three newspapermen commenting on events of the day,” and an online description of the recording at Columbia University Libraries takes the same position:

On October 10, 1889, three reporters for the World went to the offices of the Metropolitan Phonograph Company on Fifth Avenue and made use of a new technological wonder called the Graphophone….  For just under three minutes, the men discussed the events of the year (as reporters they were thrilled by the number of disasters), read some poetry, talked about sports, and even made a prediction.

I too thought at first that I heard three voices on the cylinder, even though I now believe there are only two.  But quite apart from the matter of how many speakers there are, it’s worth asking whether these accounts are correct in identifying them as “newspapermen” or “reporters.”  After all, it isn’t just that the contents of the graphophone cylinder don’t match the specific text of the published transcript.  The content isn’t even similar in character—and that, to me, suggests that contemporaneous published descriptions might offer no reliable guidance at all.  Instead of noble reflections on the importance of the New York World and newspapers in general to civil society, we’re treated to patent numbers and a litany of natural disasters.  And instead of such eminent men as William L. Davis and John A. Cockerill, we get—

Well, who, exactly?  Obscure underling reporters?

I’ll admit that I haven’t checked the New York World office directory—the cover only of which is shown here—to see whether the names Henry Lewis and A. W. Rose appear in it.  But I don’t think I need to.  I believe I’ve managed to identify the speakers by other means, and if I’m right, they weren’t actually affiliated with the New York World at all.  Their connection seems instead to have been with the Metropolitan Phonograph Company, the local agency to which the bigwigs as the World would presumably have turned for help in making their records for the time capsule.

First, let’s consider “A. W. Rose.”  There’s only a single match for that distinctive combination of initials and surname in city directories of the period: Allen W. Rose, identified by the Trow directory for March 1889 as an electrician.  Further investigation reveals that he was a Canadian-born electrical engineer who had taken out several telephone patents between 1880 and 1886 (229,843, 231,239, 231,632, 237,131, 237,132, 237,207, 252,141, 354,241).  He had assigned all but the last of these to Charles A. Cheever, with whom he had also taken out a couple other patents as co-inventor (252,142, 272,329), and who had himself taken out a patent on an “improvement” of one of Rose’s inventions (235,508).  Cheever, in turn, was President of the Metropolitan Phonograph Company.  Further examination of company records would be needed to confirm whether Rose worked for that company or not, but he definitely had a close collaborative relationship with its president and a skill set that would have been relevant there.

As for Rose’s later life: in 1895, he was reportedly “a patient and industrial worker in the employ of the Standard company,” i.e., the Standard Telephone Company of New York City, and he subsequently took out a couple more telephone patents (558,313, 591,011).  He died in 1930.

And then there’s “Henry Lewis.”  The Trow directory for March 1889 lists twenty potential matches for that name with occupations given as real estate, cigars, clerk (×2), laborer, manager (×2), merchant (×2), pedlar, plasterer, shoemaker, tailor, underwear, bartender, woolens, actor, conductor, paperhanger, and lumber.  Some of those descriptions are a bit vague, but it would be a stretch to link any of them with newspaper reporting.

Back in 2003, during a visit to Edison National Historical Site—since renamed Thomas Edison National Historical Park (TENHP)—I took some notes from a Metropolitan Phonograph Company cash book located in the Company Records Series, and some of the “paid out” entries I copied refer to an employee identified as “Lewis,” “H. Lewis,” or “Hy Lewis,” using the traditional abbreviation “Hy” for “Henry”:

  • Feb. 27, 1889: By H. Lewis Exhib Brooklyn Inst., sundries: $6.00 [p. 11]
  • Apr. 9, 1890: Musical cylinder a/c: Hy Lewis, Taking Records, $3.00 [p. 137]
  • May 10, 1890: Musical cyl. a/c:, Lewis Taking Records, sundries: $3.15 [p. 145]

Judging from these entries, someone named Henry Lewis was working for the Metropolitan Phonograph Company in 1889 and 1890 both as a phonograph exhibitor and as a recordist “taking” musical records.  Later in 1890, the Metropolitan Phonograph Company merged with the New York Phonograph Company, whose name was then extended to cover the joint company.  During a follow-up visit to TENHP in 2012, I photographed the New York Phonograph Company’s journal for 1892-1893 in its entirety (which was the basis for this blog post), but I also took pictures of a few random pages in the journal for 1890-1892, one of which—by a stroke of dumb luck—happens to show an entry for a payment of $1.20 to a “Henry Lewis” on October 9, 1890, heading a set of similar-looking payments to other members of the company’s technical team (you might recognize Henry J. Hagan if you’re into these things).

I don’t see Henry Lewis mentioned in the other New York Phonograph Company journal that starts in May 1892, so he must no longer have worked there by then.  But in August 1892, it seems that someone by this same name—now associated with the Pennsylvania Telephone Company in Easton, Pennsylvania—wrote to see if Edison would consider hiring him to exhibit either the phonograph or the “Train Telegraph” at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago the following year (the answer was no).  The train telegraph—involving transmissions from moving trains—was another project in which Cheever was interested, further supporting an identification of this Henry Lewis with the one who’d exhibited phonographs for Cheever’s company a couple years earlier.  If so, then he and Allen W. Rose would also have been fellow telephone technicians, giving them just that much more in common.

The description of the recording provided by Columbia University Libraries suggests that the speakers were, “as reporters,” naturally “thrilled by the number of disasters” that had occurred during the past year.  But their newfound identities turn out to be even more consistent with what they had to say.  The finding that Henry Lewis was a phonograph exhibitor and recordist who worked for the Metropolitan Phonograph Company helps explain why he chose to mention that the recording was being made in that company’s office, and on which specific machine, even unto its serial number.  Who else would have cared about a detail like that?  Similarly, the finding that Allen W. Rose was an inventor with several patents under his belt helps explain his fixation on the graphophone’s patent date and number.  (First he says he doesn’t know the date, but then he somehow manages to recite it: is he reading it from a source close at hand, or is someone prompting him in the background?)

The poetry is, of course, a slightly mangled rendition of the opening of Poe’s “The Raven”—and probably the oldest surviving audio recording of it.  I’m not sure of the “of” in “as of someone gently rapping,” but I’m not unsure enough to transcribe it in some other way.

As for the various references in the recording to events of 1889:

  • The New York baseball club has just won the league championship.  The New York Giants had beaten the Boston Beaneaters for the National League Championship on October 5th, just five days before the date of the recording.
  • The first of the year the Brooklyn gas works blew up, and the great cyclone they had blew down the bridge, the suspended bridge at Niagara Falls.  It had actually been on January 9th, and not “the first of the year,” when a storm had precipitated both the explosion of the Brooklyn gas works and the destruction of the Niagara Clifton Bridge.
  • Later in the summer we had a great flood at Johnstown and the whole city was swept away.  The Johnstown Flood had taken place on May 31st.
  • And also in China and Japan they’ve had great floods, and a great landslide in Quebec, Ontario—no, not Ontario, it was in the city of Quebec in Canada.  Catastrophic floods had been reported from China (July) and Japan (August), and the Quebec rockslide had occurred on September 19th.
  • Chicago wants to get the World’s Fair in eighteen ninety-two, but she won’t get it because New York is going to get there just the same.  The 1892 World’s Fair became the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition—in Chicago.
  • The Transatlantic steamship The City of New York is the fastest boat now on record.  She makes the drou— the trip in less than six days.  In fact, it was The City of Paris that held the Transatlantic speed record at this time (five days, nineteen hours, eighteen minutes, set August 22-28, 1889), and not its sister ship The City of New York.  Maybe the speaker had mixed up these two steamships, or maybe the reference to the latter being the “fastest” boat on record was intended as a play on words, since it was at that moment stuck “fast” in the mud (see the headline below from that day’s paper).  I’m not sure what word the speaker could be starting to say before correcting himself (“drou—”), so it’s also possible I’m misunderstanding something here.

New York Evening World, October 10, 1889, last edition, p. 1.

  • Edison has just won his last suit from the Pittsburgh court—or, rather, from the Westinghouse Company.  On October 5th, just five days before, a Pittsburgh court had decided in Edison’s favor against Westinghouse, declaring invalid the latter’s claim to priority of invention of the fibrous carbon filament.

With all that information in hand, let’s consider some possibilities for what might have transpired to put a recording like this one into the time capsule.

SCENARIOS #1-3 (PROLOGUE): When the executive and editorial staff of the New York World decided they wanted to deposit spoken messages for posterity in the cornerstone of their new building, they would surely have wanted the records to be as well-made as possible.  Maybe they were already using the phonograph or graphophone themselves as a practical business tool, or maybe they weren’t, but either way, they’re likely to have turned to the Metropolitan Phonograph Company with a request for experts to operate the machines and take the records on their behalf.  We know that Henry Lewis did similar work on other occasions, so he might have been entrusted with this job as well.  Maybe he’s the one who ran the equipment as Davis, Cockerill, and the others dictated their carefully prepared messages into it, and who would have taken each cylinder off the machine once it was finished and kept track of it until it was time for it to go into the box.  And then

SCENARIO #1: Any two recorded cylinders of the same format look pretty much alike, especially to the untrained eye.  During a moment when nobody was looking, Lewis could have surreptitiously swapped in one or more cylinders of his own, recorded at the office earlier that morning, for one or more of the “official” cylinders.  Later that day, while others impulsively tossed coins into the path of the descending cornerstone, he could have smiled to himself, knowing that he—and his co-conspirator, Allen W. Rose—were the secret beneficiaries of the day’s most ambitious play at immortality.  They were the ones whose voices had been sealed up in the box for projection into an unimaginably distant future.  And nobody on the World staff would ever be the wiser!  This strikes me as the simplest and most plausible explanation.

SCENARIO #2: In appreciation for his generous help in recording the speeches of the World staff on two phonograph cylinders, Lewis might have been granted the official privilege of including one additional cylinder of his own.  That would have been nice of the World staff, but somehow I can’t see it happening when nobody else who wasn’t a Pulitzer was permitted to include any strictly personal mementoes in the box.

SCENARIO #3: The World staff might have known which way the winds of technology were blowing and wanted their messages for posterity recorded on Edison phonograph cylinders, not Bell-Tainter graphophone cylinders.  But this could have given the leadership of the Metropolitan Phonograph Company reason to worry: would they get in trouble with the graphophone interests if they let such a great opportunity for publicity slip by without giving the graphophone a share in it?  “Sure, we’ll help,” they might have parleyed, “but you’ve really got to put a graphophone cylinder in that box of yours too.”  “Fine!” we can imagine some representative of the World responding a bit impatiently.  “Give us one, and we’ll throw it in and include it on the official list.  But we know the graphophone is a piece of crap—pardon our language—so we don’t give a damn what you folks put on that cylinder.”  I doubt the World staff would have been so crassly cynical.  I also think this scenario gives too much weight both to the Metropolitan Phonograph Company’s obligation to promote the phonograph and graphophone equally and to the perceived inferiority of the graphophone.

SCENARIO #4: The real goal behind all the ceremonial activities surrounding the laying of the cornerstone was, of course, to impress the public of 1889 and thereby to boost the circulation of the New York World.  From this perspective, there would have been value in telling people that recorded speeches full of noble sentiments and penetrating insights were being sealed up for posterity.  If there were any outside witnesses to the sealing of the box, there would also have had to be some actual cylinders on hand to serve as visual props (perhaps obtained from the Metropolitan Phonograph Company, which might have had to be in on the scheme to make things look realistic).  But actually recording the speeches?  Why bother?  By the time anyone retrieved the cylinders and listened to them—if anyone were fool enough to entertain such a fantasy—the feat could have done no earthly good to anyone on the executive and editorial staff of 1889.  They were busy men, and this whole affair was just for show anyway; in the end, any cylinder was as good as any other cylinder as far as they were concerned.  Perhaps Lewis and Rose just took advantage of their indifference.  Again, I doubt the World staff would have been as cynical as this, and the other contents of the box were apparently all “real,” even when it would have been advantageous for them not to be (like the $20 gold coin).

SCENARIO #5: The recording we have today that purports to be a transfer of the graphophone cylinder from the New York World Building cornerstone is really a twentieth-century fake.  I don’t think so.  If anyone had wanted to fake a recording with this alleged provenance, wouldn’t they have used the published transcript as their text, or at least pretended to be someone famous associated with the New York World, such as Nellie Bly?  Why come up with something that runs so contrary to expectations and involves such obscure people?

If you can think of another equally plausible scenario, please share it in the comments section below.  But of the five scenarios I’ve laid out above, I believe only Scenario #1 rings true.  The other four strike me as requiring too much cynicism on the part of the World leadership, too much deference to the desires of the Metropolitan Phonograph Company, or both.  If we knew what was on the two phonograph cylinders, of course, that might also help narrow things down—but, unfortunately, we don’t.  It’s true that one account mentions the box containing “a cylinder recording by Chauncey Depew” (“Life in 1889 Recalled by Cornerstone,” Chicago Defender, February 16, 1956, p. 3), but that was published the day after the box was opened, presumably before anyone would have had time to try to play anything back.  I suspect this remark can be chalked up to a misreading of the original list of contents published in 1889: the next item in that list after the three cylinders was a copy of Chauncey Depew’s oration at the cornerstone-laying, written on parchment, and someone could have mistakenly conflated the two entries.

Scenario #1 would still leave open the question of motive.  Was this conceived as a mere prank?  Or were Lewis and Rose truly captivated by the prospect of sending their voices into the future—enough so that they were willing to brave some risk in order to achieve it?

Either way, I’m grateful to them for doing what they did.

For the most part, people have made rather poor choices about what to put into time capsules, at least from the perspective of the people who have ended up opening them.  The officially sanctioned contents of the New York World Building cornerstone box were, on the whole, a lot like the objects listed in a spoof article in the Onion entitled “Newly Unearthed Time Capsule Just Full of Useless Old Crap”:

“What were the people who buried this thing thinking?” asked Atchison mayor Donald Kirschwald, following a capsule-opening ceremony at Atchison Town Hall. “None of this stuff is worth a red cent. It’s all a bunch of stupid, worthless junk: newspapers, photographs, children’s toys, sheet music, a pen knife, an iron and some rusty kitchen appliances. Big deal.”  […]

Perhaps the most unusual item in the capsule was an elaborately calligraphed document titled, “A Proclamation To The Peoples Of The Distant Future.”

“It is our profound hope,” the document read, “that as the clouds of war once again darken the Earth here in 1939, you, our descendants of the year 2939, will have come to realize that the destruction of civilization in the name of nationalism is too great a price to bear. It is also our hope that peace, harmony and prosperity will embrace your world as it has eluded ours.”

“Boring!” said Cub Foods cashier Sherri Gower, 20, who witnessed the capsule-opening ceremony during a cigarette break.

The published transcript of the World staff’s messages to posterity reads a lot like this “proclamation.”  If the graphophone cylinder had contained some of that text, as it was probably supposed to, it would now be comparatively uninteresting.  Don’t get me wrong: I’d still have liked to hear it.  But there are other stiff ceremonial spoken messages of this kind out there, made by other eminent figures of the late nineteenth century, which survived perfectly well outside of time capsules.  Most of these attract attention today only as specimens of particular people’s voices and speech patterns.  With all due respect to Davis, Cockerill, and the rest, I doubt these men would now be on anyone’s top ten list of People Alive in 1889 Whose Voices We Wish We Could Hear.  Nor would this case have been atypical for misfiring.  Here’s a telling passage from a summary of a presentation by Will Jarvis, the author of Time Capsules: A Cultural History and perhaps the world’s leading expert on the subject:

Question from the audience: “Have any great mysteries been solved by a time capsule?” Answer: “No. We’ve never learned anything from opening a time capsule.”

I don’t know that anything I’ve laid out above qualifies as “solving a great mystery.”  But if we’ve learned anything cool from opening the cornerstone box of the New York World Building, I’d say we probably have Henry Lewis and Allen W. Rose to thank for it.  For me, at least, their off-the-cuff remarks bring the world of 1889 to life more vividly than anything else in the box.  I can’t help but think this is what it feels like when a time capsule works.

*  *  *

Way back in 1879, a tinfoil record of Ira Sankey singing “Hold the Fort” is supposed to have been placed in the cornerstone of the building at Northfield Seminary that would go on to become known as Revell Hall.  As we’ve seen, a reporter wrote at the time: “The satisfaction with which some one will possibly hear Mr. Sankey sing fifty or sixty years after he is dead can be imagined, but not described.”   In fact, you can listen to records of Sankey singing “Hold the Fort” and other selections today, well over a century after his death in 1908, on the Archeophone Records release Waxing the Gospel—although those records were made in 1899, twenty years after the earlier tinfoil had gone into the cornerstone.  And yet Revell Hall, unlike the New York World Building, is still standing and looks liable to do so for a long while yet.  I wish it well.  But if one day the recording in its cornerstone should somehow come to light again, maybe it too will have a surprise in store.


PS (February 17, 2022): David Giovannoni has kindly provided what he calls a “crude restoration” of the cornerstone recording with some noise filtered outnotably that awful mains humand with a faster choice of playback speed (~186.8 rpm).  I’m grateful to be able to share it herewith.

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