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Posted by on Jan 20, 2010

Living Memories and Archived Multimedia: The Edison Collection from the Library of Congress

Trolling through a section in the Library of Congress on Immigration (great learning tool), I rediscovered a collection that I had encountered before, namely the The Motion Pictures and Sound Recordings of the Edison Companies. Rather than reinvent the text provided there, I will let the good folks of the Library of Congress walk us through the collection:

“Prolific inventor Thomas Alva Edison (1847-1931) has had a profound impact on modern life. In his lifetime, the “Wizard of Menlo Park” patented 1,093 inventions, including the phonograph, the kinetograph (a motion picture camera), and the kinetoscope (a motion picture viewer). The collections in the Library of Congress’s Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division contain an extraordinary range of the surviving products of Edison’s entertainment inventions and industries. This site features 341 motion pictures, 81 disc sound recordings, and other related materials, such as photographs and original magazine articles. ”

These recordings are brilliant and a must witness for any teacher, student, curious onlooker, or amateur historian. The quality is good, the audio crisp (relatively), and the images are clear (if a bit on the compact side).

I am including some that I enjoyed below as they really are worth a look. If interested, you can view the entire list of motion pictures available.

The above video shows Johannesburg, South Africa in 1917.

The above video shows a Chinese Funeral Procession in San Francisco in 1903.

The above shows the funeral procession for President William McKinley, who was assassinated in 1901 by Leon Czolgosz.

From a historical perspective, it is hard to imagine a world without moving images and recorded sound, as if life were a series of still frames. As a (former) teacher, I am especially curious how that influenced the classroom dynamic and the ability of the students’ to piece together pieces into a larger, fluid coherent whole.

I think back to the events that I saw unfold live from my youth (and adulthood): the Towers collapsing on 9/11 (with my wife in Seoul), the Challenger Shuttle exploding (live from my elementary school classroom), the Berlin Wall falling (as a high school student), the Tiananmen Square Uprising, even the 2002 World Cup in Seoul (the sheer spectacle of it). Most of that was captured forever for me in film, a series of moving images. We heard the cheers, the jeers, the screams; we saw the emotion, the passion, the despair, the fortitude, the tragedy. It forever burned itself into our memory.

To think there was a time when this multimedia did not exist is conceptually possible, if emotionally distant. To think that Americans imagined the Civil War through newspaper descriptions (if at all), that the only music one would hear in a lifetime would be performed live.  That sheet music was the equivalent of an MP3.

So, I will leave you with a few audio tracks from the Edison Collection that I actually enjoyed (not just as a historical curiosity). Yes, the first one I actually searched for; I always plug in my name to these types of things. Just click on it to listen or right click to download it to your computer.

Mister Gallagher and Mister Shean-1922

12th Street Rag-Bowman-1921

In the Little Red Schoolhouse-1922

Be sure to visit the Collection at the Library of Congress to pay due respect to their fine work. If you can spare the time, the American Memory Project is a good way to lose hours upon hours of your time wrapped in historical bliss.

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