(Villiers de l’Isle-Adam, 1885)

Even among the noises of the past, how many mysterious sounds were known to our predecessors, which for lack of a convenient machine to record them have now fallen forever into the abyss? . . . Who nowadays could form, for example, a proper notion of the sound of the trumpets of Jericho? Of the bellow of Phalaris’ bull? Of the laughter of the augurs? Or the morning melody of Memnon? And all the rest?

Dead voices, lost sounds, forgotten noises, vibrations lockstepping into the abyss, and now too distant ever to be recaptured! . . . What sort of arrows would be able to transfix such birds?

Edison touched with a casual finger a button of porcelain set in the wall beside his chair. A blinding blue jet leaped from an electric condenser just a few feet away – a jet capable of striking dead a certain number of elephants. It blazed like lightning through a block of crystal, then disappeared in the same hundred-thousandth of a second.

-Yes, said the great engineer, continuing his meditation, I have this little spark . . . which is to sound what the greyhound is to the tortoise. It could give the sounds a start of fifty centuries and yet chase them down in the gulfs of outer space, ancient refugees from the earth! But on what wire, along what trail, could I send it? How teach it to bring the sounds back, once it has tracked them down? How direct them to the ear of the investigator? This, at least, the problem seems insoluble.


[later, Edison explains to Lord Ewald the workings of the Android he will make for him]:

The songs and words of the Android will forever be those that your lovely friend will have dictated to her – unknowingly, without ever laying eyes on her. Her accent, her diction, her intonations, down to the last millionth of a vibration, will be inscribed on the discs of two golden phonographs . . . perfected miraculously by me to the point where now they are of a tonal fidelity . . . practically . . . intellectual! These are the lungs of Hadaly. An electric spark sets them in motion, as the spark of life sets ours in motion. I should warn you that these fabulous songs, these extraordinary dramatic scenes and unsounded words, spoken first by the living artiste, captured on records, and then given new seriousness by her Android phantom, are precisely what constitute the miracle, and also the hidden peril of which I warned you.

Lord Ewald was shaken by these words. He had not dreamed of this explanation of the Voice, that virginal voice of the lovely phantom. He had simply wondered. Now the simplicity of the solution erased his smile. The dark possibility – still much disturbed, no doubt, but still a possibility – of the total miracle, appeared before him distinctly.

More resolved than ever to learn where the extraordinary inventor could be leading, he renewed his questioning:

-Two phonographs of gold? Was that what you said? No doubt they are a good deal more handsome than ordinary lungs. But why gold?

-In fact, they are a virgin gold, said Edison, laughing.


-Because, in addition to the fact that it yields a more feminine resonance, more sensitive and more exquisite, especially when it’s treated in a certain way, gold has the marvelous quality of not oxidizing. You might take notice that in order to create a woman I had to have recourse to the rarest and most precious of substances. It’s a circumstance very flattering to the fair sex, the electrician added gallantly. -Still, he added, I had to use iron for the joints.

Less than a decade after Thomas Edison invented the phonograph, Villiers de l’Isle-Adam published L’Eve future in the magazine La Vie Moderne (1885-86). In the story, a fictional Thomas Edison applies his technical wizardry to the construction of a perfect woman, who is to take the place of the lamentably imperfect fiancé of his friend, Lord Ewald. One gains a sense from the story of just how marvelous and disquieting it was in the late nineteenth century to be confronted with the newfound ability to record sounds for posterity, and to relocate voices from human bodies to machines. L’Isle-Adam offers many technical details as to how the construction and vocal capabilities of the android would render her indistinguishable from a living woman. Ultimately, however, supernatural powers intervene to endow the android with capacities beyond her manufacture, and – it seems – to doom her to an early death.
Text: Villiers de l’Isle-Adam, Tomorrow’s Eve, trans. Robert Martin Adams (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2001), 10, 79-80. Image: Raphaël Drouart, from Villiers de l’Isle-Adam, L‘Ève future (Paris: Henri Jonquieres, 1925).