Thanks to the phonograph, Gustave Eiffel's voice travels through the ages

Wednesday 13 December 2023

Modified the 13/12/23

Incredible! Listen to Gustave Eiffel's voice and discover the history of how it was recorded.

You may know his face, but have you ever heard Gustave Eiffel's voice? Thanks to the phonograph recordings archived at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France (National Library of France, or BNF), his voice has traveled through the ages. Though the recording may be a little crackly, high-pitched and trembling, it gives the builder of the Eiffel Tower true immortal status!

Listen to it on the INA website, thanks to an amazing radio archive dating back to 1948, which is also the oldest one held at the institution! The audio documents in the archive are from 1891. They include Gustave Eiffel having fun with his phonograph, recording a few sentences in a joyful voice. This innovative device was a gift from Thomas Edison two years earlier.

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Thomas Edison and Gustave Eiffel: a meeting at the top

It is September 1889. The World Exhibition is in full swing in Paris, and Gustave Eiffel is at the height of his glory, both literally and metaphorically. His Tower is the star of the exhibition and thousands of visitors line up every day to experience the shivers of excitement as they climb to a height of 906 feet for the first time! 

Gustave Eiffel kept an apartment on the upper floor of the platform at the top of the Tower for his exclusive use, leaving the lower level available to the public. In his office among the clouds, Gustave Eiffel received his distinguished guests. In September 1889, inventor Thomas Edison was in Paris to visit the World Exhibition and present his invention, the phonograph. It was already making a big splash, the first device in the world that could record and play back sound. But as he explained, Edison had crossed the Atlantic for another reason – primarily to visit and admire the fascinating tower, the highest in the world, and meet the person who built it! 

The Eiffel - Edison encounter immortalized in a reconstruction of Gustave Eiffel's office, with an authentic period phonograph!

It occurred on September 10, 1889. Thomas Edison didn't come empty-handed: as an admirer of the prominent French engineer, he brought Gustave Eiffel the most recent model of the phonograph, the "Class M". As a great lover of technological progress and modernity, Gustave Eiffel would often use his “gift”. He enjoyed recording the voices and conversations of his loved ones and guests at every occasion. The BNF has several wax cylinders engraved by Gustave Eiffel on his phonograph, which are also the oldest audio recordings in France.

Thomas Edison (with a bowler hat) in the center, with Gustave Eiffel in the background on the right.

As well as the voice of Gustave Eiffel, they contain recordings of the voices of philosopher and historian Ernest Renan, astronomer Jules Janssen, author Louis Pasteur Vallery-Radot and physicist Eleuthère Mascart, as well as Gustave Eiffel's children and grandchildren.

Listen to the recording of Ernest Renan on France Culture

“To Mr Eiffel, the brave builder of so gigantic and original specimen of modern Engineering, from one who has the greatest respect and admiration for all Engineers including the Great Engineer, the Bon Dieu.”
Edison's dedication to Eiffel

What is a phonograph? 

Patented in late 1877 by Thomas Edison, the phonograph made it possible to record and replay sounds through an entirely mechanical process: using a cutting stylus connected to a vibration-sensitive diaphragm, a groove is engraved on a rotating copper cylinder (which would be later replaced by wax). To play the audio back, a stylus would trace the groove and transmit the vibrations to the diaphragm. In the 1900s, the cylinder phonograph would be replaced by the gramophone, a device that laterally engraves round, flat disks. It was the beginning of the music industry!

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