In search of Queen Victoria’s voice

“Greetings, Britons and everybody.” Queen Victoria in 1887, at about the time she made her Graphophone recording.

It is a woman’s voice, but it sounds as though it comes drifting toward us across some vast and unbridgeable distance. It is all but drowned out by the snaps and the crackles and pops of what is by any standard a primitive recording. And yet—listened to over and over again—the voice does begin to sound refined. Perhaps even a little bit imperious.

The words that the woman speaks are muffled, but it is possible to make at least a few of them out. Some people have sworn that they can hear “tomatoes,” for example, blurted out toward the end of the track. But what about the very first syllables preserved on the recording—a 20-second audio segment believed to have been made more than 130 years ago, late in 1888, in the earliest days of the recording industry? Is that really the voice of Her Imperial Majesty Queen Victoria? And, if it is, can she really be welcoming her listeners with the words: “Greetings, Britons and everybody”?

There is no real doubt that Britain’s longest-reigning monarch allowed her voice to be recorded in that long-ago fall. The man who made the recording freely discussed it and it is recalled in a letter in the Royal Archives, dated 1907; the incident also rates a passing mention (without a source attribution) in Elizabeth Longford’s exhaustive biography of the Queen, Victoria R.I. The question is what happened to the recording after it was made—and, in a broader sense, why it matters whether it still exists. The search for the recording takes us from the New Jersey laboratories of Thomas Edison to the Highlands of Scotland, and from the archives of the Rolls-Royce motor company to the vaults beneath London’s Science Museum. Before we set of on that trail, though, we first need to understand why anyone should be interested in a few utterly unimportant phrases spoken by a long-dead queen. Continue reading

Truth, beauty and Pancho Villa

Pancho Villa pictured shortly after the Battle of Ojinaga, in January 1914 – an engagement he delayed for the benefit of American newsreel cameras. The still comes from Mutual Film’s exclusive footage.

The first casualty of war is truth, they say, and nowhere was that sage old aphorism more true than in Mexico during the revolutionary period between 1910 and 1920. In all the blood and chaos that followed the overthrow of Porfirio Diaz, who had been dictator of Mexico ever since 1876, what was left of the central government in Mexico City found itself at war with several contending rebel forces – most notably the Liberation Army of the South, commanded by Emiliano Zapata, and the Chihuahua-based División del Norte, led by the even more celebrated bandit-rebel Pancho Villa. The three-cornered civil war that followed was notable for several things: its unrelenting savagery, its unending confusion, and – north of the Rio Grande, at least – its unusual film deals. Specifically, it’s remembered for the bizarre contract Villa was supposed to have signed with a leading American newsreel company in January 1914. Under the terms of this deal, it is said, the rebels undertook to fight their revolution for the benefit of the movie cameras – in exchange for a large advance, payable in gold. More