Only known recording of Andrew Carnegie gives voice to history
Andrew Carnegie is 78 years old, far from Pittsburgh and the steelmaking that made him rich. His voice is shrill, laced with an unmistakable Scottish brogue, as he reads from his 1889 essay "The Gospel of Wealth," a text he altered slightly for a reading inside Thomas Edison's sound studio in the Bronx, N.Y.
The recording, set down 93 years ago on a contraption known as the "Kinetophone," is far from pristine, both in quality and performance. Amid static, the greatest steelmaker of the 19th century and the father of modern philanthropy clears his voice twice and stumbles a few times before finding his groove at the end of the six-minute track. Raising and lowering his high-pitched voice for emphasis, Mr. Carnegie hammers home his message about the responsibility of millionaires to give away their fortunes: "The day is not far distant when the man who dies leaving behind him millions of available wealth, which was his to administer during life, will pass away un-wept, un-honored and un-sung . . . Of such as these the public verdict will then be: 'The man who dies thus rich dies disgraced.'"
This is the only known chronicle of what the diminutive, white-haired icon of the Gilded Age actually sounded like. Earlier this month, a digitally restored copy of the Jan. 20, 1914, recording was given to Carnegie Mellon University President Jared Cohon by James Mellon II, a great-great grandson of Mr. Carnegie's Pittsburgh contemporary, "Judge" Thomas Mellon, during a philanthropic medal ceremony in Oakland. Another honoree, Eli Broad of Los Angeles, cited Mr. Carnegie's "The Gospel of Wealth" as an influence on his own philosophy of giving, saying that "he who gives while he lives knows where it goes."
The university still is considering what to do with the Carnegie relic.
"It is a very special recording," said CMU spokesman Ken Walters.
For years, though, its whereabouts were unknown.
Credit for its rediscovery and its restoration goes to 59-year-old Queens, N.Y., sound artist Art Shifrin, who in the early 1980s found a copy of the Carnegie clip in the archives of the Swedish Radio Company in Stockholm and then the original cylinder sound roll in the Edison National Historic Site in West Orange, N.J. What his work showed was that as early as 1913, Mr. Edison had been experimenting with the phonograph and the motion picture (two of his inventions) to create films -- 14 years before Al Jolson and "The Jazz Singer."
In 1913 and 1914, Mr. Edison invited at least three people to the studio for a voice-and-film recording project described by Mr. Mellon as an attempt to record "the greatest living people on sound." The thought was, according to Mr. Mellon, that "we should get these people talking before they die."
One was New York Mayor William Jay Gaynor; another was Thomas Watson, assistant to Alexander Graham Bell during the invention of the telephone; and the third was Mr. Carnegie, who arrived ready to read from an essay he penned a quarter-century earlier. A recording horn caught his voice and scratched it on a wax cylinder, while the images of Mr. Carnegie were captured on 35 mm film.
Mr. Edison's Kinetophone connected the phonographic recording to a film projector via a belt, and in an effort to marry sound with visuals, two halves of a coconut shell -- the forerunner to the modern-day "clapper board" -- were knocked together to denote the moment when film should roll. The clacking of the coconuts can be heard at the beginning of Mr. Carnegie's clip, just before he introduces the text by saying, "I quote from 'The Gospel of Wealth,' published 25 years ago."
The whereabouts of the Carnegie film are not known.
One possibility is that it perished in a March 1914 fire at the Edison studio, a blaze that destroyed "many moving picture feature films," according to a March 29, 1914, account in The New York Times. Not long after the fire, Mr. Edison pulled the plug on the Kinetophone, which never found a commercial audience despite his producing more than 200 films, according to Scott Eyman's 1997 book "The Speed of Sound." By 1915, Mr. Eyman wrote, the project was "extinct."
For those reasons, the Carnegie recording is "historically priceless," said Mr. Shifrin.
It was Mr. Shifrin who dubbed the recording that Mr. Mellon, who lives in New York, presented to Mr. Cohon earlier this month. He also shared a copy with the Post-Gazette. Using newer digital noise-reduction methods, the recording is "easier to understand than any version I worked on before," he said.
The Edison National Historic Site also keeps the same clip of Mr. Carnegie on its Web site: www.nps.gov/archive/edis/edisonia/motion_picture.htm.
It is no surprise that Mr. Carngie read from "The Gospel of Wealth" that day in 1914. It was a piece of writing that brought him international fame and attention well before his 1901 sale of Carnegie Steel to J.P. Morgan, which transformed Mr. Carnegie into the "richest man in the world," as Mr. Morgan put it.
The first essay, entitled "Wealth," appeared in the North American Review in June 1889, and the Pall Mall Gazette in England reprinted it as "The Gospel of Wealth." What was sensational about the writing was Mr. Carnegie's bold declaration that millionaires newly minted by the Industrial Revolution had a duty to give away what they earned, and to do so in the places where they gathered their wealth -- places such as Pittsburgh, Chicago and New York. In a separate essay titled "The Best Fields for Philanthropy," he also detailed the best ways to redistribute so much money, starting with universities, libraries (Mr. Carnegie's favorite cause) and medicine.
There was not time for Mr. Carnegie to run through his entire "Gospel of Wealth" during recording day in the Bronx -- the playing time of each Edison cylinder was just slightly more than six minutes. So he jumped around the text, and in a few cases, rearranged the sentence structure or added new words.
The man of wealth, he said, is a "mere trustee and agent for his poorer brethren, bringing to their service his superior wisdom, experience and ability to administer." He warned against "indiscriminate charity," saying that "it were better for mankind that the millions of the rich were thrown into the sea than so spent as to encourage the slothful, the drunken, the unworthy."
Mr. Carnegie's most noticeable alteration to the text is at the end. The original essay in 1889 concludes with a prediction that "The Gospel of Wealth" would "bring peace on earth, among men goodwill." In 1914, though, he argues that obedience to his philosophy will "hasten the coming of the brotherhood of man and at last to make our Earth a heaven." And his famous line in 1889 about the "man who dies leaving behind him millions . . . will pass away unwept, unhonored and unsung" is now prefaced with a different, qualifying phrase.
The "day" when a millionaire will die unhonored due to an uncharitable way of living, he said, "is not far distant."
First Published October 30, 2007 12:00 am