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The Only Footage of Mark Twain in Existence

This silent film footage was taken in 1909 by Thomas Edison at Mark Twain's estate

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Mark Twain. Left: Photographed by Life Magazine. Left, in Tesla’s Lab, photographed by Wutz

In the long tradition of awesome people hanging out with each other, this is a video of Mark Twain made by Thomas Edison. In fact, it’s the only footage of Twain that we know of.

The film is silent, and that’s how Twain will remain to history – sadly, no recordings exist of the famous author’s voice. But it’s not for lack of trying on Twain’s part. In 1891 Twain attempted to dictate his novella “An American Claimant.” But after burning through 48 wax cylinders in the phonograph, he gave up. Those 48 cylinders are now lost. He tried again in 1909 at Edison’s lab, but those recording were lost in a 1914 fire.

It turns out that hanging out with Thomas Edison wasn’t the only way in which Twain was a nerd. He was also friends with Nikola Tesla, and hung out in his lab from time to time. He even patented a few things. His first patent, #121,992, was granted on December 18th, 1871, for detachable clothing straps.

Twain even kind-of predicted the internet in one of his science fiction stories (yes, Mark Twain wrote science fiction). The story, published in the London Times, included a “telelectrosope” phone system that shared information through a network. Through that telelectroscope, he writes, “the daily doings of the globe made visible to everybody, and audibly discussable too, by witnesses separated by any number of leagues.” Sound familiar?

At Berkeley, researchers have spent the last 36 years gathering every piece of writing the author ever produced. That means two dozen volumes and 15,000 pages of work.

All that work, and his classic, biting, style, makes Twain one of the most iconic writers in American history. So iconic that last year Google dedicated a Doodle to him:

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About Rose Eveleth
Rose Eveleth

Rose Eveleth is a writer for Smart News and a producer/designer/ science writer/ animator based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Scientific American, Story Collider, TED-Ed and OnEarth.

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