Does anyone know what the oldest audio recording of the German language is? I'm particular interested in spoken German that was recorded. And I've found only some sentences by Otto von Bismarck.

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    Welcome to German.SE. Does your finding matches this one The Atlantic is talking about? theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2012/01/… I suggest you edityour question to add timestamp and maybe topic your source originates. The LoC seems to have things only as of 1900+ loc.gov/audio/?all=true&c=150&dates=1900/… (and yeah, I'm pessimistic for older stuff if even popular people's voices have bad conservation) Sep 16, 2020 at 6:05
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    archive.org has this and this, both arias; the date is supposedly 1899 but I'm skeptical. You want spoken, this is the monologue from Hamlet (translated into German) dated 1902. My understanding is that people basically had to shout into the microphone in those days, so getting any kind of natural speech is out of the question.
    – RDBury
    Sep 16, 2020 at 9:27

1 Answer 1


Throughout the 19th century, a number of patents have been filed for a device to record sound waves in some form or another. The first such patent was issued in 1857 but it only allowed recording not playback.

In 1877, Edison invented and built the phonograph; the first machine that was capable not only of recording but also of playback. (A French scientist had written down the idea for such a device earlier in 1877 but was not able to build a working model. However, he was able to establish scientific precedence according to his sealed letter that was deposited before Edison’s first disclosure. The oldest known surviving recordings (that could be played back in the original machine) date from 1888 using an improvement to Edison’s machine probably dating to Bell. Earlier recordings exist but they cannot be played back directly although some have been replayed by using modern methods to translate the waveform trace back into a sound wave.

This gives us a lower bound; we do not know any recordings from before 1888.

In 1889–1890, Theo Wangemann travelled Europe on behalf of Edison, showing off the phonograph in various locations with thousands of blank cylinders ready for recording. As part of this tour, he met von Bismarck on 7th October 1889; this is likely the recording in the Youtube video but can also be accessed on the US’ National Park Service site. Von Bismarck’s recording is the oldest among those of the trip across Europe.

One might argue that the announcer (Wangemann?) is also German and speaking onto the cylinders; one recording (Hungarian Melody) is placed between the first in Paris (in English) and the one with von Bismarck (in German) on the site; however, they also mention that it is dated by year only (the exact recording date is unknown) and while they can rule out a recording in Paris to a high degree of certainty it is unclear whether it was recorded before or after the one with Bismarck.

Surviving recordings from other people on the same trip were recorded after von Bismarck’s, so we may treat his voice as the oldest currently known recording of the German language.

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