I did a brief interview this morning on Jack Riccardi’s show on KTSA AM 550 (San Antonio), prompted by the weekend piece on the Chinese Dong-Feng ballistic missile. Looking for how to capture a podcast afterward, I found this gem among Jack’s featured posts: “World’s Oldest Podcast.”
It’s well worth the 3 minutes of your time. It’s the audio of a radio address from 1929 featuring President Herbert Hoover and Thomas Edison. The kicker is that to recapture the audio for a modern audience, a pair of engineers had to literally recreate the “pallophotophone” – a short-lived General Electric prototype device – on which it was recorded. The audio was preserved on tape stored inside a canister, but there was no way to play it until the device could be recreated, which was done recently using research and old photos.
The post quotes one of engineers as confessing to goosebumps when he first heard the audio emerge. I think you’ll get them too; I know I did. It set me thinking that my grandparents would have been in their teens when this address was broadcast. If they didn’t hear it, some of my great-grandparents probably did. Broadcasts of this kind weren’t so common that people paid them little attention. Radio was a pervasive factor in daily life up through my parents’ childhoods.
The free-association jokes about Joe Biden, and President Franklin Roosevelt coming on TV to reassure the nation after the stock market crash in 1929, will be inevitable. But there’s something quite marvelous about this little story. It reminds me of studies Victor Davis Hanson has written about, in which the exact conditions of ancient warfare are recreated so that modern people can understand what it really meant to be a 5’5”, 140-pound man and fight as a hoplite in ancient Greece, or row a trireme in a sea battle the Saronnic Gulf. It weren’t no video game, that’s for sure. You get a whole new perspective on what it meant to fight, and why men did it, when you take the trouble to submit yourself to their conditions, assumptions, and limitations.
The care taken to recreate conditions, to orient ourselves to the reality of our forebears, to extract piercing truth from their voices from the past, to remember, to understand – these efforts all stand in powerful contrast to the callow, dismissive sarcasm that pervades so much of our modern discourse. This “world’s oldest podcast” reminds us that Jon Stewart and the Daily Show are not all we are. As with the Rosetta Stone and Linear-B, when we can’t hear a voice from the past, we can and we do go to the trouble – the patience, discipline, work, humility – of enabling it to speak again, just because its authenticity completes a circle for our moral and spiritual frame of reference.
We shouldn’t forget that. Modern pop culture doesn’t define us. We are capable of so much more than proud, stupid ignorance. That it was “all in a day’s work” for a pair of virtually unknown engineers to give this Thomas Edison address a voice again, by recreating a brief snatch of the year 1929, says more about us than 100 years’ worth of MSM editorial content and Hollywood programming.
Cross-posted at Hot Air.