Otto von Bismarck speaks

Wax cylinder containing sole recording of Otto von Bismarck's voiceResearchers at the Thomas Edison National Historical Park have discovered that 17 unlabeled wax cylinder phonograph records found stashed in a cabinet behind Edison’s cot back in 1957 contain extremely rare recordings made in Europe in 1889 and 1890, including the only known recording of Otto von Bismarck, first Chancellor of the German Empire.

Two [of the wax cylinders] preserve the voice of Helmuth von Moltke, a venerable German military strategist, reciting lines from Shakespeare and from Goethe’s “Faust” into a phonograph horn. (Moltke was 89 when he made the recordings — the only ones known to survive from someone born as early as 1800.) Other records found in the collection hold musical treasures — lieder and rhapsodies performed by German and Hungarian singers and pianists at the apex of the Romantic era, including what is thought to be the first recording of a work by Chopin.

Since they weren’t labeled or cataloged, nobody had any idea what was on them until last year when Edison laboratory curator Jerry Fabris used an Archeophone device to trace the grooves on 12 of the cylinders and convert them to audible wav files. The recordings were very faint, too faint for Fabris to identify, so he enlisted the aid of sound historians Patrick Feaster of Indiana University and Stephan Puille of the University of Applied Sciences in Berlin to try to determine who and what were on the cylinders.

Thomas Alva Edison (seated center), Theo Wangemann standing behind himThey had a starting point: the words “Wangemann. Edison” carved into the lid of the wooden container in which the cylinders had been found. Adelbert Theodor Edward Wangemann had been hired by Edison in 1888 to market his newly invented wax cylinder phonograph. Wangemann quickly became adept at recording with the phonograph and was sent to Europe in June of 1889 to supervise the operation of the Edison phonographs on exhibit at the Paris World’s Fair.

The assignment was only supposed to last two weeks, but after the World’s Fair was over Edison expanded his brief and allowed him to travel Europe collecting quality recordings to use for exhibitions. After Paris he went to his native country of Germany where he set up displays of the technology for scientists and luminaries. In Berlin, Wangemann set up his equipment in a room loaned to him by the Siemens Corporation. He carried the cylinders and accessories to the exhibition room in a lockable wooden box. It’s that box that was discovered back at Edison’s New Jersey lab in 1957.

Wangemann phonographEdison joined Wangemann in Germany to make a splash during the phonograph exhibits to scientists. While he was there, Edison asked to meet the three most important people in Germany, Bismarck, von Moltke and Kaiser Wilhelm II, but none of them were available. They all replied that they wanted to see the phonograph, though, so Edison sent Wangemann to show them the new toy and get their voices recorded for posterity. He did meet with them all, but although Wilhelm II greatly enjoyed Wangemann’s musical recordings, he never did get his own voice carved in wax. Three of his sons, the eldest just seven years old, did get recorded.

Otto von Bismarck, 1890In Friedrichsruh on Oct. 7, 1889, Wangemann recorded Chancellor Otto von Bismarck reciting verses from several ditties in four languages. The first is “In Good Old Colony Times,” a British folk song that was altered after the American Revolution to give it an anti-monarchist spin. The second is “Als Kaiser Rotbart lobesam” (When good Emperor Redbeard), an 1814 German heroic ballad by Ludwig Uhland about Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa going on the Third Crusade. The third is the Latin song “Gaudeamus igitur,” a popular graduation song in Europe at the time with your classic “carpe diem” message. The fourth is the first verse of “La Marseillaise,” which is something of an enormous iceburn on the French given their ignominious defeat by Bismarck’s Prussia in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–71.

The last lines Bismarck speaks are a direct appeal to his son Herbert who would listen to it on a phonograph in Budapest a few weeks later and recognize his father’s voice. “Do everything in moderation and morality, namely work, but then also eating, and apart from that especially drinking. Advice of a father to his son.” Solid Junker advice, that.

[audioplayer file=”″ titles=”RUN, RUN FOR YOUR LIFE”]

Read about all of the newly converted Edison/Wangemann wax cylinders, listen to the recordings and read the original text and transcripts of the spoken parts on the National Park Service website.

Cathedral-like Medieval barn rescued from neglect

Harmondsworth Barn, built 1426Harmondsworth Great Barn was built in the village of Harmondsworth, Middlesex in 1426 to store grain harvested from the Winchester College manor lands. The barn is 192 feet long, 39 feet wide and 36 feet high making it the largest timber-framed building in England, and fully 98% of the oak timbers are original. The twelve interior bays are made from 13 massive oak posts resting on stone piers. Winchester College records from 1426 indicate that master carpenter William Kypping (or Kipping) got these mighty oaks in nearby Kingston upon Thames, and dendrochronological analysis (tree ring counting and pattern matching) confirms that those oaks that still hold the hipped tiled roof up today were felled in the early 15th century.

This particular barn design, a long nave with a high roof supported by rows of posts, requires a great many internal braces to ensure the wind doesn’t knock it down. Those exposed buttresses and the central nave with side aisles and bays give the structure a cathedral-like look, and in fact the construction techniques required to build this barn were also used in the building of cathedrals at that time. It’s likely that Master Kypping’s crew included experienced cathedral builders. No wonder, then, that Poet Laureate and passionate historical preservation advocate Sir John Betjeman dubbed Harmondsworth Great Barn the “Cathedral of Middlesex.”

Harmondsworth Barn interiorThe building used to be even bigger, but a north wing was demolished in 1774. It had a close encounter with a German bomb during World War II, but survived with just a few roof tiles askew. The barn was granted Grade I listed building status — the same grade as Buckingham Palace and the Houses of Parliament — in 1950, and then designated a Scheduled Ancient Monument on top of that. It continued to be used for agricultural purposes until the 1970s when the encroaching sprawl of London made it the only Medieval barn in the area to survive its absorption into the west London suburbs.

In 1986, the barn was purchased by property developers the John Wiltshier Group who planned a full restoration. When the John Wiltshier Group went into receivership in 2006, the receiver offered the barn to the National Trust, English Heritage and Hillingdon Council for a token £1, but amazingly all three declined to purchase, probably intimidated by the daunting process of dealing with a Scheduled Ancient Monument (every change, even necessary repairs to a leaking roof, say, requires a literal act of Parliament) and the large sums of money they’ve had to spend every year to maintain such venerable carpentry.

Instead, in 2006 a shady anonymous offshore trust registered in Gibraltar and named Harmondsworth Barn Ltd. purchased the barn for £1 and proceeded to do nothing at all to it. They let it rot and closed it to the public except for one open weekend a year. English Heritage wrote them increasingly concerned letters about the condition of the barn, even going so far as to offer them grants to help fund necessary repairs. Harmondsworth Barn Ltd. didn’t respond. It seems their sole interest in the property was how a proposed expansion of Heathrow Airport would bring a new runway just yards away from the barn. If the Heathrow build had gone through and the barn had been damaged or demolished, then the owners would have been due compensation.

Harmondsworth Barn, interior detailThe airport expansion plans were abandoned. Obviously the “investors” didn’t exactly spend big money to buy the property and they certainly had no interest in spending the tens of thousands of pounds a year required just to keep a 15th century barn from falling apart. Finally last year English Heritage got the barn delisted as a Scheduled Ancient Monument smoothing the way for them to step in and save the day. Those dirty offshore rats actually had the testes to protest the delisting because they preferred to keep their £1 investment in a state of increasing decay.

English Heritage immediately spent £30,000 on emergency repairs, primarily to the roof which had holes in it from slipped and broken tiles. They also did some repair work to the weatherboard siding, most of which is also original, a very rare thing for barn siding.

Once the worst holes were plugged, EH took Harmondsworth Barn Ltd. to court to recover the public moneys they were forced to spend. Again the offshore corporation protested and rejected any attempts to settle out of court. Almost a year later, a settlement has been reached: English Heritage pays £20,000 to Harmondsworth Barn Ltd. and becomes the new owner.

Last week, English Heritage, which sees the purchase of the Great Barn as a welcome victory after a long series of drastic cuts in its budget, told the Independent that the building is “a supreme example of late-medieval craftsmanship – a masterpiece of carpentry containing one of the best and most intact interiors of its age and type in all of Europe”.

English Heritage will be handing over the running of Harmondsworth’s Great Barn to members of local campaign group The Friends of the Great Barn at Harmondsworth. It is expected to be open to the public from this April.

I can’t help but resent that those land speculator groinpulls managed to convert their single pound into 20,000 despite their shameless and deliberate neglect of the place. I bet English Heritage wishes they’d fished through their couch cushions for that pound back in 2006.

The Rats of Montecristo

Gankutsuo does not approveThe Island of Montecristo, most famous for its role as the treasure island in Alexandre Dumas’ novel of betrayal and revenge (the best adventure story ever written, in my humble opinion), is a protected nature reserve in Arcipelago Toscano National Park, a chain of islands between the coast of Tuscany and the Island of Corsica. Giglio, the site of the ongoing Costa Concordia grounding disaster, is another island in the archipelago just east of Montecristo.

The islet is the tiny, rugged tip of an underwater volcano, and the only humans living there are one official caretaker and his family. Sights include an 18th century villa and the ruins of a 7th century A.D. monastery dedicated to Saint Mamilian of Palermo, a 5th century bishop who slew a dragon on the island and changed its name from Montegiove (“Jupiter’s Mountain”) to Montecristo (“Christ’s Mountain”). Very few tourists get to see them, however, since the island can only be reached by private yacht and only 1000 travel permits a year are issued.

Those few boats — and perhaps many others before them over the centuries — have carried an even more pernicious kind of tourist: the black rat. As they so often do, the rats have made a cozy home for themselves on Montecristo, breeding lustfully and invading every niche of the delicate islet ecosystem. There’s an estimated one rat per square meter.

Italian and European government agencies are planning to solve this problem by nuking it from orbit. It’s the only way to be sure. Okay, not exactly, but the scheme is almost as cockamamie as that. The National Park, the region of Tuscany, the Italian Ministry of Agriculture and the European Union announced that starting at the end of January, they will fly airplanes over Montecristo and drop 26 tons of pesticide pellets to kill all the black rats. They plan to use brodifacoum, an anti-coagulant poison often used as a rodenticide which is classified as “extremely toxic” for its devastating effect on mammals, birds and fish.

How do they plan to ensure none of the pellets miss the tiny tip of the volcano in the middle of an island chain national park, and having ensured this, how did they plan to ensure that only the invasive rats eat them instead of the native fauna? They have top men working on it right now. Top. Men.

Director [of the national park authority] Franca Zanichelli defends the project. “Nobody wants to poison the island,” she explains. “The project, prepared by experts, involves the use of 26 tons of food pellets, similar to that used to contain the rats everywhere, consisting of edible cereal feed which inside holds a fraction of a percent of the active poison. The baits, which can not be placed off the ground to the inaccessibility of the rugged interior, will be distributed by air with a special funnel provided by another protected area in Sardinia that has already performed a similar operation. Rat exterminations were performed with similar success in smaller Giannutri [, the southernmost islet in the Tuscan Archipelago].

Ecological groups, anti-vivisection organizations and former world champion dive fisher Carlo Gasparri (a native of Elba, home of Napoleon’s first exile and the largest island in the archipelago) vocally oppose the plan and have requested a halt to the project pending an official government investigation. Gasparri believes rats should be eradicated using a less toxic product that doesn’t persist in the environment for years, accumulating in animal tissues, tainting the food chain for God knows how long.

Fiorella Ceccacci Rubino, a representative from the ruling center-right People of Freedom party, has introduced a parliamentary inquiry on the merits of the plan, submitting that a less environmentally damaging method should be used.

The islet of Montecristo

P.S. – The top picture is from the phenomenal anime science fiction version of Dumas’ immortal novel, Gankutsuou: The Count of Monte Cristo. Although there are of course a number of major departures from the original, this is the only filmed version of the book I’ve ever seen that does the novel justice. If you love the book, like me, and if like me you’ve seen every live action movie version only to be disappointed, even renting the late 1990s French mini-series hoping that at least Dumas’ countrymen would respect the genius of his plot, pacing, and characterization only to stare in undisguised horror at Gerard Depardieu playing the starved and driven-to-madness Edmond Dantès in the Chateau d’If pretty much like he played Obelix, then Gankutsuou can make you whole again.

Vermeer’s ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’ coming to US

Johannes Vermeer, "The Girl with the Pearl Earring," 1665Johannes Vermeer’s masterpiece Girl with a Pearl Earring will be touring three museums in the United States next year. The last time the Girl was in the US was in 1995, when it was on display at Washington, D.C.’s National Gallery of Art along with all 20 other known works by the 17th century Dutch painter.

That exhibition was a blockbuster success, but other works like View of Delft were considered the stars of the show. This time, she gets top billing above the likes of Rembrandt, probably because her popularity has skyrocketed since Tracy Chevalier’s eponymous novel was published in 2000 and the movie starring Scarlett Johansson as the model and Colin Firth as Vermeer hit theaters in 2003.

The new exhibition, “Girl with a Pearl Earring: Dutch Paintings from the Mauritshuis,” features 35 important paintings by Dutch Golden Age masters including Vermeer, Rembrandt, Fans Hals and Jan Steen. The Royal Cabinet of Paintings Mauritshuis in The Hague is housed in a 17th century palace which will be undergoing a major two-year renovation and expansion. It will close on April 1st and move its entire permanent collection to the Gemeentemuseum, also in The Hague.

The Mauritshuis collection will be on display there in its entirety from April 28, 2012 to May 28, 2012, and then the Girl with a Pearl Earring and her 34 escorts will begin touring the world. First they’ll go to Japan, from July until mid-September at the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum, then on to Kobe’s City Art Museum until January 2013.

Their first stop in the United States will be the de Young Museum of San Francisco where they’ll be on display from January 26, 2013 to June 2, 2013. Next up will be the High Museum of Art, Atlanta, which will host the exhibition between June 22, 2013 and September 29, 2013. This will be the first time Girl with a Pearl Earring has ever been seen in the southeast United States, so it will give a great many people a unique opportunity to see her in person.

The last stop on the US itinerary is the The Frick Collection in New York City from October 22, 2013 to January 12, 2014. After that the works head home to the Netherlands. They will be back on display at the newly expanded and renovated Mauritshuis by mid-year.

Through landscapes and portraits, the exhibition will explore the idea that Dutch artists more readily embraced genre paintings of secular subjects than their southern European contemporaries and focused on capturing commonplace scenes of daily life. Dutch artists not only recorded representations of the domestic interior, still lifes and revelrous crowds, but often imbued these scenes with moral undertones and humorous, sarcastic wit.

Key paintings featured in the exhibition include: Johannes Vermeer, “Girl with a Pearl Earring,” ca. 1665, Carel Fabritius, “Goldfinch,” 1654, Rembrandt van Rijn, “‘Tronie’ of a Man with a Feathered Beret,” ca. 1635, Jan Steen, “The Way You Hear It, Is The Way You Sing It,” ca. 1665, Jacob van Ruisdael, “View of Haarlem with Bleaching Grounds,” 1670–1675.

Carel Fabritius, "Goldfinch" ca. 1654 Rembrandt van Rijn, ‘Tronie’ of a Man with a Feathered Beret, ca. 1635 Jacob van Ruisdael, "View of Haarlem with Bleaching Grounds" ca. 1670-1675 Jan Steen, "The way you hear it, is the way you sing it" ca. 1665

Beheaded Vikings may have been elite killing force

In March of 2010, scientists confirmed that the 54 decapitated bodies unearthed in Dorset a year previously were Vikings. Isotope analysis on their teeth proved that they had grown up in Scandinavia, one of them in the Arctic circle, no less. The theory researchers were working from at the time was that the deceased were members of a Viking raiding party who had been decapitated by Saxon defenders.

University of Cambridge researcher Dr. Britt Baillie has a new theory on who they might have been. Based on further analysis of the bones and on documentary research, Dr. Baillie posits that these Vikings were an elite force of mercenaries executed not by Saxons, but by other Viking mercenaries, perhaps even at the behest of English King Aethelred the Unready.

Mass executions from the medieval period are not common finds, and there have been several other discovered from Aethelred’s reign. Aethelred had been paying tribute (the Danegeld) to Danish kings since they defeated his forces at the Battle of Maldon in 991. The Viking raids didn’t stop, though, and by 1002, Aethelred was sick of it. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the king’s councilors told him the Danes would kill them all and steal his kingdom so he ordered all Danes in England be slain on St. Brice’s Day, November 13, 1002. The St. Brice’s Day Massacre, as it would become known, saw Anglo-Saxon mobs tear through their communities, killing Danish settlers.

The Dorset mass grave, however, was not the work of a mob. It was a deliberate execution and decapitation only of men of fighting age, and most interestingly for Dr. Baillie, these men weren’t decapitated by a blade to the back of the neck. They were decapitated from the front, just like the captured warriors in the Saga of the Jomsvikings, an Icelandic saga about a quasi-legendary fighting force of Viking mercenaries who were reputedly the fiercest of all Viking warriors.

The captured Jomsviking in the saga is glad to make sweet love to death’s steely blade, but only face to face. “I am content to die as are all our comrades. But I will not let myself be slaughtered like a sheep. I would rather face the blow. Strike straight at my face and watch carefully if I pale at all.”

While historians will probably never agree conclusively about who the men were, Baillie’s analysis draws her to the conclusion that they may have been Viking mercenaries who modelled themselves on, or behaved in a similar way to the legendary Jomsvikings – a brotherhood of elite killers whose strict military code involved never showing fear, and never fleeing in the face of the enemy unless totally outnumbered.

Allegedly founded by Harald Bluetooth, the Jomsvikings are thought to have been based at a stronghold called Jomsborg on the Baltic coast. At a time when Vikings were feared across Europe, they were known as perhaps the fiercest of them all – a reputation which even earned them their own saga.

“The legends and stories of the Jomsvikings travelled around the medieval world and would almost certainly have been indicative of some of the practices of other bands of mercenaries or may even have been imitated by other groups,” Baillie said.

One of the victims had filed teeth, a rare Scandinavian practice which might have been an indication of high status or a way to look extra scary while making a war face.

So even if the Dorset Vikings weren’t Jomsvikings, they may have been modelling themselves after them, and their executioners apparently respected that, hence the theory that they were Vikings as well. Since Aethelred was in the practice of pitting different bands of Danes against each other, even ones he had hired himself, that’s certainly plausible.

The discovery of the grave and analyses of the human remains are documented in a National Geographic special that aired in the US in December. It was luridly titled Viking Apocalypse for the sensation of it, I suppose, but despite that and the tedious shouty reenactments, it was actually fairly science-heavy. Sadly there’s no video available on the website any more, but the show is still airing in the UK. You can catch it next on Sunday, January 29 at 7:00P.M.

Here’s a short clip from the beginning of the show with some excellent footage of the mass grave.