The benefits of transcription are obvious for modern speakers and journalists, but the practice is relatively recent. Virtually all of the important words that were spoken before the advent of recording technology are lost, as are quite a few speeches delivered after the invention of the microphone. Some moments in history were so important, it actually hurts to think that nobody was around to transcribe words spoken by the participants.
George Washington Saves the Revolution; Nobody Knows How
Toward the end of 1776, the American Revolution was in deadly peril. Almost the entire Continental Army was staffed by short-timers on a one-year contract, and their terms were set to expire with the new year. If that happened, there’d be no army to fight the British.
On the horns of this dilemma, General Washington addressed his troops. Fumbling with his spectacles, he apologized for his clumsiness. Then he began to “read” what he claimed was a letter from Congress, promising to deliver back pay and bonuses to the soldiers.
In truth, no such letter existed, and Washington was improvising the whole performance. Because no real letter had been written, and because nobody thought to transcribe words the general spoke, we’ll never know exactly what he said that motivated virtually the entire army to reenlist for the duration of the war.
Rudolf Hess Is Branded a Lunatic
In May 1941, Deputy Fuhrer Rudolf Hess surprised the world by flying from Germany to Scotland, parachuting to the ground, and delivering a peace proposal to the British government. At first, the plan went surprisingly well, and Hess was allowed to meet with progressively higher-ranking British officials. Then, things went wrong. In a secret meeting with the Duke of Edinburgh, which nobody was allowed to transcribe words from, Hess seems to have made a bad impression.
Unable to negotiate peace, and equally unable to return to Germany, Rudolf Hess was locked in the Tower of London for the rest of the war. Whatever happened in that meeting to give the impression Hess was disturbed, it appears to be an imposture he kept up until his death in 1987.
Cleopatra Meets Marc Antony
In 41 B.C., Rome was in civil war, and Marc Antony had traveled to Egypt seeking allies. There, he met Cleopatra, the Ptolemaic ruler who had already borne two children with Julius Caesar. Cleopatra was, seemingly, the key to control of Roman lands in the east, so the two forged an alliance.
Antony’s position at the time was fairly strong, while Cleopatra was weak and vulnerable. In the event, this relationship doomed Antony’s campaign against Octavius, making modern historians wonder what the queen could possibly have said to the general at their first meeting that persuaded him to ignore the counsel of his advisers and side with the reviled Egyptian monarch.
The Modern Mafia Is Born
In 1931, a rogue element in the New York Mafia, led by Charlie Luciano, had all but eliminated the rival chieftains of the city’s organized crime syndicate. Facing a leaderless, potentially destructive situation, “Lucky” Luciano called a meeting of all the bosses in Chicago to divide territory.
Nobody was, for the obvious reasons, allowed to transcribe words spoken at that meeting, but it must have been impressive. After the conference, “the Commission” was founded, with Luciano as its chairman, and all of the organized crime in America came under something like centralized control. This radically transformed the criminal underworld, as well as the federal law enforcement response to it, and nobody alive today knows what was said at the meeting that started it all.
Star Wars Is Awful; Will Never Make Money
Early in 1977, with a summer release bearing down on him, George Lucas invited Steven Spielberg, Brian de Palma, and John Milius to his house for an advance screening of the film. Three of Hollywood’s greatest directors sat in the Lucas home, watched Star Wars to the end, then consoled their friend on having made a flop.
The conversation after the film wasn’t recorded, though some of the people present would later talk about the experience. Apparently, the film hadn’t yet been cut into its final form, only a few of the sound effects were in place, and the finished visuals hadn’t been added. Without any of these, nobody knew quite what Lucas was aiming for with the picture, and the directors fumbled with words to cushion the blow of their criticism.
Star Wars went on to make over $700 million in its first year.
Moments from history slip away as quickly as they come. Without anyone around to transcribe words that will shape the future, much of what’s “known” about the past is mostly speculation. Imagine what we would know if all of these spoken words had been transcribed.
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