It’s a tribute to science and ingenuity when ambitions technicians use new technologies to connect to older ones and thereby bridge the present with the past. That’s exactly what happened when physicist Carl Haber of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, California; fellow physicist Earl Cornell; and Peter Alyea, a digital conversion specialist at the Library of Congress, succeeded in extracting the sound of Alexander Graham Bell’s voice from a wax and cardboard disc that he’d received from the Smithsonian Institution. Bell, a native of Scotland, is best remembered for inventing the prototype to the telephone in 1876. He had spent years trying to devise a way to transmit the human voice over telegraph wires. Even afterwards, Bell continued experimenting with recordings he made on various cylinders and discs. Between the 1880s and his death in 1922, Bell donated his extensive collection to the Smithsonian. Aside from wax, Bell and his assistants utilized metal, glass, paper, foil and cardboard to record sounds. But, whatever methods they used to play back those recordings remains lost to history.
Two years ago Haber, Cornell and Alyea began analyzing Bell’s materials; determined to retrieve the sounds locked into those discs and drums. Towards the end of 2011, Patrick Feaster, a sound media historian at Indiana University, joined the team by compiling a comprehensive inventory of notations made on those discs and drums. One of the discs, dated April 15, 1885, contained a recording of Bell speaking:
“In witness whereof – hear my voice, Alexander Graham Bell.”
Technicians are still analyzing Bell’s materials, and it’s possible they’ll locate other samples of the inventor’s voice. Bell was certainly steadfast in his goal to record the human voice for all to hear. His inspiration may have come from his wife, Mabel, who was deaf. Sometimes, the personal elements of our lives can lead to the most incredible of accomplishments.
You can listen to the recording here: