Two Geniuses' Cross-Cultural Exchange

One of Thomas Edison's many inventions was the phonograph, which patented in 1878. The machine could record and reproduce sound on wax cylinders. In 1895, Russian author Leo Tolstoy first tried to make a phonograph recording, reading one of his own short stories, "The Repentant Sinner."

Many years later, in May 1907, the editor of the New York Times, Stephen Bonsal, visited Leo Tolstoy at his country estate in Yasnaya Polyana (south of Moscow). Moved by Tolstoy's warm reception, Bonsal promised to send him the latest phonograph model from the U.S., which was already in extensive use among American journalists.

The gift reached Tolstoy in January 1908. Bonsal had entrusted the delivery to Arthur Brisbane, his colleague and friend from the New York Evening Journal. Brisbane, in turn, had gone to Thomas Edison's firm, Edison Business Phonograph, to locate the latest model. When the inventor was told who the phonograph was intended for, he refused to charge anything and sent his own machine to Yasnaya Polyana with an engraved caption: "A Gift to Count Leo Tolstoy from Thomas Alva Edison."

Today, the phonograph is on display at Yasnaya Polyana, which also houses the Leo Tolstoy Museum and Estate.

In the summer of 1908, Edison asked Tolstoy to make several recordings for him in English and French: "short messages conveying to the people of the world some thought that would tend to their moral and social advancement. My phonographs have now been distributed throughout all of the civilized countries, and in the United States alone upwards of one million are in use," he wrote. "Your fame is worldwide, and I am sure that a message from you would be eagerly received by millions of people who could not help but be impressed with the intimate personality of your own words, which, through this medium, would be preserved for all time."

The literary legend consented, and, in December 1908, his personal physician, Dushan Makovitsky, made a diary entry about the "arrival of two Englishmen with a good phonograph," who recorded the voice of Leo Tolstoy.

We know from the doctor's personal notes that Tolstoy "practiced before speaking into the phonograph, especially the English text." He prepared for the recording very thoroughly, was very nervous and thought a great deal about what exactly to tell his millions of listeners.

The author's friend and assistant, Vladimir Chertkov, suggested he read an extract from Tolstoy's treatise "On Life," written in 1887. Tolstoy took this advice. According to the physician's notes, Tolstoy read the Russian and French texts successfully on the first try. However, when it came to reading in English, he stumbled on a couple of words and decided to make a new recording the following day.

Eventually the recordings turned out well, surviving the journey across the ocean and reaching Edison, who confirmed their high quality.

However, the fate of these cylinders is not entirely known to Tolstoy scholars. Their existence is widely questioned, and both facts set forth in articles from early 1908 and the discrepancies in the recording dates suggest that eyewitness accounts may have been invented or distorted.

In January 1909, a Moscow newspaper reported a visit to Tolstoy by Edison's closest assistants (his audio engineers): "Leo Tolstoy read four extracts in Russian, English and German. The cylinders produced a wonderfully clear rendering of his voice. However, according to our sources, these cylinders will not be released to the public."

In 1911, after Tolstoy's death, the New York Times reported that his son, Count Tolstoy, had visited Edison. The inventor made an exception and let the Count into his famous Room 12, where he stored all of his most sensitive and secretive equipment. The Count recalled a notice over the door, which read: "This room is not open to any visitors on any pretext whatsoever."

Edison's album, in which he kept comments about his inventions made by famous people, contains a note by Tolstoy: "The most powerful force in the world is thought. The more forms of expression it finds, the more that force can manifest itself. The invention of printing was a milestone in human history. The appearance of the telephone, and especially the phonograph, which is the most effective and impressive medium for recording and preserving not only the words, but the shades of the voice that says them, will mark another era."

But what of the cylinders with the writer's voice that had been dispatched across the ocean? According to experts at the Tolstoy State Museum, they most likely perished during a fire at Edison's office in 1914.

However, historian and audio archivist Lev Shilov claims in his book, "The Voices of Writers: Records of a Sound Archivist," that one recording has survived. This was confirmed in the late 1980s by the American author Bell Kaufman, and a member of the New York Public Library, Edward Kazinets, and the curator of the Edison Museum, Mary B. Bowling. However, this claim has yet to be proven.

Most of the cylinders with recordings of the writer's voice, which, incidentally, were later issued on compact discs, are now at the Tolstoy State Museum. As for the legendary recording addressed to "the civilized peoples of the whole world" and dispatched to America, its fate has yet to be realized. -

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