Call of the past
Published: Saturday, February 9, 2008 at 3:28 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, February 9, 2008 at 3:28 a.m.
Scientists using cutting-edge technology have brought Jack London back to life.
The voice of the famed author can be heard in a 2½-minute recording, the only recording of London known to exist. It was made almost a century ago and just now recovered from a wax recording cylinder.
"Just a rush letter, ere I sail for Hawaii," London says in the scratchy recording. "I merely want to tell you that everything concerning California prisons in the Star Rover is true."
Star Rover was a London novel deploring conditions at San Quentin.
The letter, dated Dec. 2, 1915, the year before London died, was written to Max Ehrmann, an Indiana lawyer, philosopher and poet, and goes on to deplore the conditions of the state's prisons and the execution of Jake Oppenheimer for assault and battery.
London dictated the letter into a Dictaphone, probably in his cottage den in Glen Ellen. The voice on the recording is slow and halting, the sound of a man in declining health who would die 11 months later.
"It is exciting," said John Crossman, state parks superintendent. "I still have the words ringing in my ear about the prison, that it was really that bad."
It's fitting that technology was used to extract the voice of London, who was a fan of technology, from the worn and damaged wax cylinder that he'd left behind.
The work was done at UC Berkeley's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, where physicists have developed an optical scanning method that maps the grooves on records and wax cylinders without ever physically touching them, physicist Carl Haber said.
The digital mapping of the grooves then is fed into a computer program, analyzed and converted into sound.
"It's exciting to be able to take this inanimate object and then apply a technical set of measurements and then hear a human voice from 100 years ago," Haber said. "The object is an unusual intersection that connects people over a great span of time. That's a thrill and you feel quite privileged."
Haber said the process was developed five years ago using federal funds, primarily to preserve audio recordings for the Library of Congress and other archives.
Since then, it has been used on several public and private collections, such as the Phoebe Hearst Museum, which has wax cylinder recordings of the language and music of Ohlone Indians from 1901 and 1902.
Haber said the lab worked on 24 wax cylinders relating to London that are owned by the state and by private collectors. The state had the voice of London; another cylinder, owned by a private collector, had a voice presumed to be his wife, Charmian.
"The fact we can recover the voice is significant," said Breck Parkman, a senior state archaeologist who has used such things as DNA testing and ground-penetrating radar in his work.
"As we go through our lives, science will have a greater impact. You can look at the science, 'Wow, they can do that, they can recover the voice without touching the cylinder.' "
Eventually the recording will be part of the London park exhibit. It will be played for visitors in the painstakingly restored den and cottage where London would write 1,000 words each day, his back to the window to avoid distractions.
"It would be best served as an interpretative tool if it was listened to and fully explained at the park where it was recorded," Crossman said.
The Londons bought the 500-acre Glen Ellen ranch and vineyard in 1910 and named it Beauty Ranch. It was where he lived, wrote, entertained friends and dignitaries and eventually died.
London was a world traveler and remains an international figure. His books have been translated into many languages, and in some ways he is America's Shakespeare, said Sonoma State University professor Jonah Raskin, a Jack London scholar.
London's voice "creates a more direct and personal connection with the person; it is another piece of the puzzle to hear what he sounded like," Raskin said.
"People still get very excited about Jack London. Any additional piece in the Jack London jigsaw puzzle is very important to people."
London always had the latest technologies, including a telephone, telegraph, fire engine and 12 cameras, so it was not surprising he had two Dictaphones for composing letters, Raskin said.
The wax cylinders used by Dictaphones, however, were meant to be used, scraped clean of grooves and re-used. They were easily damaged and susceptible to a fungal growth.
Crossman said several of London's cylinders were kept by his descendents and donated to state parks in 1961. Kept in cardboard tubes, they were in poor shape.
Crossman said the state is in the process of copyrighting the recording and hasn't yet decided how or when it will be made available to the public. Much of that depends on being able to staff the London cottage at Glen Ellen.
The cottage is open only on weekends. The park staff consists of two rangers, some seasonal part-time workers and volunteers.
"We are very cognizant of the interest," Crossman said. "We want it to be available to the public."
Its effect on people is noticeable. It was played before a state Parks Commission meeting several months ago that was held in London's den at the Glen Ellen state park.
"It was dramatic, watching people who do like parks and they get to hear London's voice for the first time," Crossman said. "You could hear a pin drop."
You can reach Staff Writer Bob Norberg at 521-5206 or firstname.lastname@example.org.HEARING LONDON
In the 92-year-old recording, the author talks about state prisons and the execution of a man for assault and battery / A9
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