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Immortality, Genealogy and Technology

By Daniel Hubbard | June 10, 2012

Two things happened to me the other day that prompted some thinking. I heard an ad for a BBC radio play about a fictional meeting between Thomas Edison and Alfred Lord Tennyson. Edison wished to record the aged Tennyson reciting some of his famous poems, such as The Charge of the Light Brigade. Tennyson wavered over and over again with thoughts of the balance between true creative recitation of a memory and preserved sound that will always be the same. He fretted about flirting with the ability to speak from beyond the grave.

It seemed to me that I had run across this feeling before. That is, each new technology that gives us another way to preserve ourselves makes people think about immortality and what the new technology really means. Tennyson’s misgivings about recording his voice seem to have been fictional but the connection between technology and thoughts of immortality is real.

I realized that one sometimes hears people’s thoughts about social media profiles that live on even after the person who was social passes away. Once again, a new technology brings new musings about immortality. Within a few hours of hearing about Tennyson and Edison, I heard precisely one of those discussions about social media. The topic was the Facebook pages of people who have died, where friends can still see that last year on this day he took a sick dog to the vet, ate fresh strawberries from the garden or even learned that he was soon going to die. All still there as if it was just written. The page still sending out birthday reminders to friends every year.

As family historians we dabble in the immortality that comes with preserving, collecting and correlating information. We try to recreate people who are no longer here by gathering what we can. We read records that give us ideas about who a person was, how they looked, what they thought, how they behaved… Mostly we deal with written records that are not particularly personal and we need to recreate the personal from data and inference. Sometimes though, they are just that. They are personal. We have letters or a diary that give us a person’s actual words and reflecting their actual thoughts. If we get the preservation right, those thoughts become immortal.


Writing must be the oldest form of technological immortality and most “genealogical immortality” flows from written records. We often phrase it just that way when we think about the written word, “Paul Revere was immortalized in a poem” would be a perfectly normal thing to say. We explicitly couple writing with immortality. I once found a long dead relative of mine immortalized in just this way as a character in a play. It is quite an odd feeling to read a work of literature and see a name from your family tree, read incidents from his life and realize that he had been immortalized.

While preparing this post, I tried to find references from the time of an invention that discussed immortality as a result of the new form of preservation. Statements along the lines of what is read or heard in current discussions of social media presences that live on even after we die. That isn’t really possible for writing.

On the other hand, authors often make reference to how their work or the thoughts that they write become immortal.

From things that have happened and from things as they exist and from all things that you know and all those you cannot know, you make something through your invention that is not a representation but a whole new thing truer than anything true and alive, and you make it alive, and if you make it well enough, you give it immortality. That is why you write and for no other reason that you know of. But what about all the reasons that no one knows?

If any ambitious man have a fancy to revolutionize, at one effort, the universal world of human thought, human opinion, and human sentiment, the opportunity is his own—the road to immortal renown lies straight, open, and unencumbered before him. All that he has to do is to write and publish a very little book. Its title should be simple- a few plain words- My Heart Laid Bare. But- this little book must be true to its title.
-Edgar Allan Poe

I’ve put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and that’s the only way of insuring one’s immortality.
– James Joyce

One of the oldest remaining works of literature, younger than less than a dozen other works, is the famous Sumerian tale, the Epic of Gilgamesh. The story itself can be said to be immortal, both in the literary sense and in the fact that it has survived and is still known over 4000 years after the first parts were written down. It also is about immortality. Even then writing and immortality went hand in hand. It seems that

Sumerians held the belief that writing would bring renown and assure immortality, and used the same word, mu, to signify both “name” and “fame.” By creating inscriptions and documenting their feats, Sumerian kings attempted to establish mu dari, or an “eternal name,” for themselves.*


The first commercially successful form of photography was invented by Louis Daguerre. He became immortalized (or perhaps immortalized himself) in the name of the process, daguerreotype. The daguerreotypist John J.E. Mayall even produced an image that he titled “This Mortal must put on Immortality.”

The technology that eventually exceeded the daguerreotype in popularity was called the ambrotype. Its name comes from two words in Ancient Greek, ἀνβροτός and τύπος, which mean “immortal impression.”


Before photography there had been portrait painting that could capture a person’s likeness but before the phonograph, there was only memory that could capture a person’s voice. At the time of its invention, people were well aware that the ability to preserve sound, was something that was totally new. Something that had been very fleeting could become permanent.

It has been said that Science is never sensational; that it is intellectual, not emotional; but certainly nothing that can be conceived would be more likely to create the profoundest of sensations, to arouse the liveliest of human emotions, than once more to hear the familiar voices of the dead. Yet Science now announces that this is possible, and can be done…. Speech has become, as it were, immortal.
Scientific American, November 17, 1877

Nothing could be more incredible than the likelihood of once more hearing the voice of the dead, yet the invention of the new instrument is said to render this possible hereafter. It is true that the voices are stilled, but whoever has spoken or whoever may speak into the mouthpiece of the phonograph, and whose words are recorded by it, has the assurance that his speech may be pronounced audibly in his own tones long after he himself has turned to dust. A strip of indented paper travels through a little machine, the sounds of the latter are magnified, and posterity centuries hence hear us as plainly as if we were present. Speech has become, as it were, immortal.
Daily Picayune, December 9, 1877

Motion Pictures

You can watch an old movie and be aware that every actor that moves through every scene is dead and yet they seem as alive as the day that the film was made. One of the telltale signs of life is a person’s ability to move without any external impetus. Yet, thanks to the invention of motion pictures people who are long gone can move across the screen as if they were still twenty, though born a hundred years ago.

“Film was seen as a triumph of realism and even proclaimed as a hedge against mortality, since films would preserve the living appearance of people long after they were dead.”**

Not everyone finds this type of immortality through preservation to be sufficient. Woody Allen summed up his opinion as,

“I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it through not dying.”


Tennyson’s 1890 recording of The Charge of the Light Brigade, made by one of Edison’s assistants, still exists and when found, was still playable. About the time that he made the recordings he began a prolonged illness. He died two years later, though his voice lives on.

I found this video which uses that recording. You can clearly hear the famous opening lines “Half a league, half a league, Half a league onward.”If it is sometimes hard to understand, remember that the owner of this voice died one hundred and twenty years ago. The text of the poem appears below the video to help you follow the recording. The other thing about this video is that Tennyson moves as he recites though the starting point was a still photograph. Technology has made it possible for those made immortal with a photograph to move again.

Now, I need to get back to working on a few people’s genealogical immortality…

Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
“Forward the Light Brigade!
Charge for the guns!” he said.
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

Forward, the Light Brigade!”
Was there a man dismay’d?
Not tho’ the soldier knew
Some one had blunder’d.
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die.
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon in front of them
Volley’d and thunder’d;
Storm’d at with shot and shell,
Boldly they rode and well,
Into the jaws of Death,
Into the mouth of hell
Rode the six hundred.

Flash’d all their sabres bare,
Flash’d as they turn’d in air
Sabring the gunners there,
Charging an army, while
All the world wonder’d.
Plunged in the battery-smoke
Right thro’ the line they broke;
Cossack and Russian
Reel’d from the sabre-stroke
Shatter’d and sunder’d.
Then they rode back, but not,
Not the six hundred.

Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon behind them
Volley’d and thunder’d;
Storm’d at with shot and shell,
While horse and hero fell,
They that had fought so well
Came thro’ the jaws of Death,
Back from the mouth of hell,
All that was left of them,
Left of six hundred.

When can their glory fade?
O the wild charge they made!
All the world wonder’d.
Honor the charge they made!
Honor the Light Brigade,
Noble six hundred!



*Rachel Galvin, “The Imprint of Immortality,” Humanities Sept.-Oct. 2002

** Richard Abel (editor), Encyclopedia of Early Cinema, Routledge, (New York : 2005 )


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