Hear the voices that changed the world

We collected some of history's vocal icons.

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Stephen Hawking
1942-
A most brilliant union
Among the most recognizable voices in the world (it's even copyrighted) is that of a partnership between man and machine. World-renowned astrophysicist Stephen Hawking imbues even mechanized speech with warmth, wit, and genius—and yet that American accent is misleading: Hawking is quite English. Here he congratulates Professor Peter Higgs for winning the Nobel Prize in Physics.
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Neil Armstrong
1930-2012
First words from the moon
On July 20, 1969, about 530 million people watched as astronaut Neil Armstrong became the first person to set foot on the moon, uttering the now-famous phrase, "One small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind." It's been long debated among audio analysts whether or not Armstrong omitted the "a" critical to the phrase's meaning. But everyone seems to get the gist.
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Alexander Graham Bell
1847-1922
First telephone call
"Mr. Watson, come here—I want to see you." These were the first words ever spoken on the telephone, on March 10, 1876, from Alexander Graham Bell to his assistant in the next room. This exact exchange happened again in 1915, but this time with Bell in New York and Watson in San Francisco—the first transcontinental phone call, via 3400 miles of wire.
Audio courtesy First Sounds
Edouard-Léon Scott
1817-1879
Earliest voice recording
In 2008, historians recovered a phonautograph deposited in Paris archives by inventor Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville. Recorded in 1860 onto paper, it is the earliest known audio recording in existence. At first it was believed the voice belonged to a woman, but researchers found it was meant to be played much slower, thus deepening the voice. It likely belonged to Scott, himself.
Courtesy Susan Bennett
Susan Bennett
1948/1949-
That's 'Siri' to you
In 2005, voice-over artist Susan Bennett filled in for an absent peer on a job, recording several hours of phrases and words in a booth. Six years later, she learned that hers had become the voice of Apple's new iOS, Siri. Don't bother asking Siri if this is true; she'll coyly reply, "Who, me?"
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Thomas Edison
1847-1931
Invented the phonograph
In 1877, Thomas Edison made the first known recording of intelligible sounds onto a tin foil cylinder meant to be played on his new invention, the phonograph. You can hear a coronet solo, followed by Edison reciting "Mary Had a Little Lamb," then laughter and "Old Mother Hubbard." Ten years later, better-quality wax cylinder recordings would drive the industry to success.
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HAL 9000
1992- ?
Misunderstood cybervillain
Long considered one of the most chilling phrases uttered in cinema, “This is highly unusual, Dave” from 2001: A Space Odyssey spoke to a world on the cusp of developing sophisticated computer systems. HAL’s unexpectedly emotional responses introduced a question that continues to linger: At what point does the intelligence created by humans cease to be under our control?
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Watson
2011
IBM's nearly human computer
In 2011, great strides were made in the field of voice-recognition software when this IBM supercomputer competed against two human champions in "Jeopardy!" and won the $1 million prize. Watson's encyclopedic recall and command of the complexities of natural human speech are featured in a recent ad campaign alongside various celebrities.
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Al Jolson
1886-1950
A spoken first for film
In 1927, filmgoers witnessed something unprecedented in a feature-length movie: audible dialogue. Al Jolson's ad-libbed "Wait a minute, wait a minute. You ain't heard nothin' yet!" in The Jazz Singer ushered in a new era of sound in cinema.
Herbert Morrison
1905-1989
"Oh, the humanity..."
On May 6, 1937, WLS Chicago reporter Herbert Morrison was covering the arrival of the German Hindenburg zeppelin in New Jersey when it burst into flames, killing 36 people. His devastated response, coupled with his struggle to remain professional and accurate in his reporting, made this first coast-to-coast broadcast a critical part of audio history.
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Julia Child
1912-2004
Bon appetit!
Julia Child made French cooking accessible to U.S. audiences via her big personality and distinct voice—a voice that undulated between deep and trilling, interrupted itself frequently for breaths, and was lovingly imitated by comics. Her aristocratic accent read to many as British, but this California gal was as American as apple pie. Well, maybe tarte tatin.
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Dr. Ruth Westheimer
1928-
Sexy straight talk
In the early 1980s, this diminutive German psychologist took American airwaves by storm with her frank talk about sex. Both she and her voice (as the Wall Street Journal put it, a cross between "Henry Kissinger and Minnie Mouse") became cultural icons overnight.
Casey Kasem
1932-2014
The voice of the "American Top 40"
Among the most famous disc jockeys in history, the late Casey Kasem hosted several music shows on the radio between 1970 and 2009, most notably "The American Top 40." His unmistakable voice is synonymous with countdowns, sappy special requests, and, oh yes, "Shaggy" from the Scooby-Doo cartoons. This 1980 interview recounts Kasem’s succesful career across several music genres.
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Neil DeGrasse Tyson
1958-
America's science teacher
Astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson uses his unique, jovial voice to share his scientific knowledge and passion with people of all ages. Between hosting TV shows like NOVA ScienceNow on PBS and Carl Sagan's Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey on Fox, his Star Talk weekly podcast, and frequent pop culture appearances, he's become a household name.
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Jon Stewart
1962-
"Daily Show" host and comedian
When comedian Jon Stewart took over a little-watched Daily Show on Comedy Central in 1999, no one could know just what an indispensable part of the culture he would make it. Upon his 2015 retirement, he was rightly labeled the voice of many generations (CNN) for his hilarious skewering of politicians and the media, his poignant interviews, and his moving calls to justice.
Walter Cronkite
1916-2009
A newsman's newsman
Walter Cronkite manned the CBS Evening News anchor desk from 1962 until 1981, reporting on such momentous occasions as the assassinations of JFK, RFK, and Martin Luther King, Jr.; the moon landing; Watergate; and the Iran hostage crisis. His fatherly voice and honest, solemn coverage made him the most trusted man in America, and a great influence on public opinion.
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Oprah Winfrey
1954-
Media titan and actress
The world's only African-American billionaire, Oprah Winfrey has built a multi-media empire of enlightenment. The Oprah Winfrey Show (which ran for 25 years), her OWN network, and O, The Oprah Magazine have made self-empowerment and enrichment into a cultural conversation. She and her resonant voice have become synonymous with wisdom ... and extremely generous giveaways.
Howard Cosell
1918-1995
Superstar sportcaster
Arguably the most iconic sportscaster of all time, Howard Cosell informed and entertained listeners with his nasal, staccato voice and blustery, pompous affectations. His voice was immortalized throughout the years by actors, comics, and even Muppets. Among the highlights of his career: an enduring, affectionately antagonistic relationship with Muhammad Ali. He's also been credited with first uttering the famous phrase "the Bronx is burning."
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Terry Gross
1951-
NPR's best conversationalist
With her penetrating questions and unflappable, cool voice, the "Fresh Air" interviewer has spent four decades prodding revelations from the world's finest and most fascinating artists. Her trickiest interviews are lessons in diplomacy, and her most effortless are exuberant interplays between interlocuter and subject.
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Barbara Walters
1929-
Asking all the right questions
Radner did it, Dratch did it, Oteri did it—if you're a woman on Saturday Night Live, you'd better have an on-point Barbara Walters impression. The first female co-anchor of a network evening news program, Walters distinguished herself in the course of her 50-year TV career with her trademark aristocratic-New England pronunciation and fearless, pointed questions during interviews with the likes of Michael Jackson, the Dalai Lama, and the Obamas.
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Vin Scully
1927-
The voice of the Dodgers
"It's time for Dodger baseball!" Hall of Fame sportscaster Vin Scully has been giving the play-by-play for Dodgers games for 66 seasons (and counting). Possessing an encyclopedic knowledge of the game, he's one of the last announcers to work alone—almost everybody else works in pairs and trios. There's simply no need for another in the booth.
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Orson Welles
1915-1985
A terrifyingly convincing voice
America learned the power of mass media the hard way, thanks to the War of the Worlds broadcast. Welles’ dramatization, voiced as a real-time newscast, caused widespread panic. Equally impactful was Welles’ post-performance: His refusals to apologize to a bloodthirsty press kept the story alive for weeks. The broadcast was one of the first recordings added to the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress.
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Joan Rivers
1933-2014
"Can we talk?"
Daring to crash a male-dominated industry in the mid 1960s, Joan Rivers found fame as a stand-up comic with her sharp, self-deprecating humor. Throughout her career, she amplified the typically male comic style—edgy, confrontational, and fearless—to pave the way for female comics for decades.
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Snoop Dogg
1971-
Rapper, cultural icon
Angry, shouted boasts were a staple of rap until a new voice suddenly rocketed to the top of the charts: Snoop’s laid back, playful, comical rap style helped bring the party back to hip-hop’s mood. He took things one step further with “fo’ shizzle,” creating a lexicon of much-repeated Snoop-isms.
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Mel Blanc
1908-1989
What's up, Doc?
The golden age of American animated shorts gained much of its sheen from a single, brilliant performer. “The Man of 1,000 Voices” elevated the art of voice acting, giving distinct personality to hundreds of beloved characters—Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Elmer Fudd among them—particularly in the Looney Toons and Merrie Melodies cartoons.
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Aretha Franklin
1942-
The Queen of Soul
Women’s voices in the civil rights movement were rare until rising R&B star Aretha Franklin covered Otis Redding’s “Respect” with a gospel-infused exuberance that shook pop radio. Women across America suddenly had a multi-issue anthem, as potent today as it was in 1967. Twenty years later, she was shown the ultimate respect as the first female inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
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Elvis Presley
1935-1977
The King of Rock n' Roll
Second only to the Beatles in record sales, “The King,” as he is still known today, initially made headlines with scandalous hip-shaking. But his iconic voice, heard here in “Blue Suede Shoes,” helped to modernize white America’s social and moral values. He helped turn R&B swagger from crass to cool, yet was equally at home with gospel, country, pop, and rock and roll.
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Frank Sinatra
1915-1998
Setting the standard for singers to come
While "The Voice" started out as a swinging crooner, it was Frank Sinatra’s skill as an interpreter of lyrics that sealed his legacy. Mimicking jazz musicians’ techniques, he sang with a spontaneous-sounding phrasing that made falling in love—or mending a broken heart—deeply personal and emotional. It's no wonder he is widely referred to as the greatest singer of the 20th century.
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Freddie Mercury
1946-1991
Rock and range
Perennially voted one the greatest singers in popular music history, Freddie Mercury made brilliant use of his four-octave range. The six-minute, genre-bending “Bohemian Rhapsody,” which he wrote and performed with his group Queen, remains one of rock’s most influential songs.
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George Takei
1937-
Star Trek's Sulu owns the internet
Already a world-famous star from his performance as Sulu in the original Star Trek, George Takei truly found his unique voice when, at age 71, he joined social media. First lending support to gay rights issues, and continuing as a hilarious commenter on politics and social trends, he inspires his more than nine million followers with his upbeat, witty outlook on life and self-referential jokes.
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James Brown
1933-2006
Godfather of Soul
“The Godfather of Soul,” among his many nicknames, created the signature soundtrack to the black empowerment movement, never moreso than in “I’m Black and I’m Proud.” The song crystallized James Brown’s style: uninhibited vocals, call-and-response structure, and an empowering message. His voice influenced virtually every R&B, soul, and rock act to follow.
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James Earl Jones
1931-
All about that bass
One of entertainment’s most iconic baritones, with a career spanning six decades so far, James Earl Jones is the only person who could voice Darth Vader in Star Wars. Another actor portrayed the masked villain, but it was Jones’ unmistakable vocal performance that gave the character heft, menace, and chill-inducing gravity. Here it is in all of its glory.
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Marlon Brando
1924-2004
Often imitated, but never duplicated
Although best-known for his title role in The Godfather, it was Brando’s raw, anguished, sexually charged cry for “Stella!” in the film version of A Streetcar Named Desire that confirmed the actor’s status as both heartthrob and Hollywood heavyweight. Generations of actors to come copied every mumble, every shout of his full-commitment Method style.
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Robin Williams
1951-2014
Pick a voice, any voice
The late, Juilliard-trained Robin Williams conquered every form with his incredible range of voices (heard here in Good Morning Vietnam) and rapidfire improvisational skills. Whether he was telling bawdy jokes on stage, singing Disney songs as Aladdin's Genie, or inhabiting complex and serious roles like The Fisher King, he committed 200%.
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Roseanne Barr
1952-
Unapologetically abrasive funny lady
All it took was a few minutes of world-weary, life-at-home humor on "The Tonight Show" and America found a new unlikely heroine. The proudly whiny “Domestic Goddess” soon dominated television with her groundbreaking sitcom, "Roseanne," which celebrated working-class resilience, with the mother clearly in charge.
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Dolly Parton
1946-
The Smoky Mountain Songbird
The most honored country singer of all time, Parton is a powerhouse songwriter and performer. It’s her sweet, disarmingly sad singing voice, however, that carries the most emotional impact—particularly when bringing life to autobiographical songs like “Jolene,” “Coat of Many Colors,” and “My Tennessee Mountain Home.”
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Whitney Houston
1963-2012
A perfect vocal technique
Descended from soul and gospel royalty, the late Whitney Houston blew the world away with the velvety ease with which she moved from a low, resonant chest voice to an airy head voice 3+ octaves away. Her first four albums exceeded 86 million copies globally, and her rendition of the "Star-Spangled Banner" at Super Bowl XXV is a benchmark for any singer of the anthem.
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Malala Yousafzai
1997-
A courageous champion for children
In 2008, when she was barely 11 years old, Malala Yousafzai gave a talk in Pakistan entitled, "How dare the Taliban take away my basic right to education?" Four years later, Taliban fighters shot Malala in the head, but she was not silenced. She survived and brought to the UN her call for education for all children, and received the Nobel Peace Prize.
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Franklin D. Roosevelt
1882-1945
Reassurance in a time of crisis
America was in the depths of the Great Depression when President Franklin D. Roosevelt gave his famous inaugural speech in 1932, uttering the immortal phrase "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself." In an inspiring sermon, he called out those responsible while promising to turn the devastated economy and staggering 25% unemployment rate around.
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Martin Luther King, Jr.
1929-1968
Speaking for freedom, equality, and peace
On August 28, 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stood before the Lincoln Monument in Washington, DC and delivered what was to become the unequivocable best American speech of the 20th century. In it, he described his dream of freedom and equality arising from a land of slavery and hatred, ending with the soul-shaking "free at last, free at last—thank God Almighty, We're free at last."
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John F. Kennedy
1917-1963
"Ask not what your country can do for you..."
JFK swore in as the 35th president of the United States on January 20, 1961, at the height of the Cold War. His inaugural speech called for leadership, peace, and prosperity in the face of an accelerating nuclear arms race, quelling anxieties and refocusing the nation's attentions.
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Margaret Thatcher
1925-2013
A formidable opponent
Britain's Parliament is a gauntlet of voices—to truly be in command one must be heard over the shouts and jeers and not be easily intimidated. As the first female Prime Minister of the U.K., Margaret Thatcher proved that a woman has what it takes, earned a reputation as "The Iron Lady," and won her party three elections.
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Frederick Douglass
1818-1895
Giving voice to the oppressed
Frederick Douglass escaped slavery to become one of the most famous abolitionists and intellectuals of his time. He wrote several books, advised presidents, and lectured to thousands on the subjects of slavery, women's rights, and Irish self-rule. In 1872, he was nominated for Vice President of the U.S. on the Equal Rights ballot, the first such nomination for an African-American.
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Howard Dean
1948-
A candidacy sunk by sound
The so-called "Dean Scream" is an example of the power of voice to have the opposite of an intended effect. Gov. Howard Dean had a strong lead in the Democratic presidential primaries when he gave a speech in Iowa that culiminated in an awkward, throaty yell. The ensuing media onslaught is believed to have significantly contributed to his poor showing in the rest of the race.
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Barack Obama
1961-
America's Orator-in-Chief
A one-term senator from Illinois took the 2004 presidential race by storm with countless inspiring speeches, but particularly the one given on the night of the New Hampshire primary. In it, he outlined a plan for change to a beleaguered and anxious country, rallying the voters who turned out in record numbers with a rousing and repeating "Yes, we can."
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Malcolm X
1925-1965
The voice of revolution and reinvention
In 1964, the Civil Rights Act was tied up in the Senate with a reasonable threat of not being passed. Malcolm X delivered this powerful speech urging African-Americans to get involved in the political process and to strengthen their communities, while simultaneously warning the government that if the bill didn't pass, there would be little recourse left but violence: "the ballot or the bullet."
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Maya Angelou
1928-2014
Poet, performer, and activist
At President Bill Clinton's inauguration in 1993, Pulitzer Prize-winning author and civil rights activist Maya Angelou read from her poem, "On the Pulse of the Morning." Employing her renowned theatrical skill, she gave a memorable and stirring performance urging a nation of many colors and creeds toward peace, justice, and harmony. The poem would go on to win a Grammy Award that year.
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Ronald Reagan
1911-2004
"Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall."
In 1987, President Ronald Reagan called upon Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down the wall dividing Germany into a democratic west and Soviet-controlled east. Throughout the 1980s, Gorbachev had demonstrated a willingness to loosen his government's grip on Eastern Europe; this speech communicated just how invested the U.S. was in seeing that through.