Until about ten years ago, nobody knew what Alexander Graham Bell sounded like. But a breakthrough came in 2013, when Smithsonian researchers recovered a previously “unplayable” recording of the scientist on a wax-and-cardboard disc.
“Hear my voice,” Bell declared. For the first time since his death in 1922, the world could finally listen to his words.
Now, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History has announced a new project: restoring hundreds of never-before-heard sound recordings made by Bell and his fellow researchers between 1881 and 1892 at Volta Laboratory in Washington, D.C., and Bell’s property in Baddeck, Nova Scotia. They are some of the world’s earliest sound recordings.
“Over the three-year duration of this remarkable project, ‘Hearing History: Recovering Sound from Alexander Graham Bell’s Experimental Records,’ we will preserve and make accessible for the first time about 300 recordings that have been in the museum’s collections for over a century, unheard by anyone,” says Anthea M. Hartig, the museum’s Elizabeth MacMillan director, in a statement. The new initiative will begin in the fall.
Born in Scotland in 1847, Bell is most famous as the inventor of the telephone. He received a patent for his methods on March 7, 1876. A few days later, he made his first phone call to his laboratory assistant: “Mr. Watson, come here. I want to see you.”
In recent years, researchers have already recovered sound from 20 experimental recordings at Volta Laboratory, including the only documented recordings of Bell’s voice. The new project will be focused on recovering the rest of the collection.
The cardboard-and-wax discs created by Bell and his associates, which the research team will be translating, were once thought to be “mute artifacts,” as Carlene Stephens, curator at the National Museum of American History, told Smithsonian magazine’s Charlotte Gray in 2013. She began to wonder “if we would ever know what was on them,” as the details of Bell’s attempts to play them back had been lost to history.
But thanks to the exhaustive work of experts from the museum, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the Library of Congress, a new technique was developed to hear the recordings.
The team uses computers to create a digital scan of the grooves on the wax disc, removing any scratches or damage that might get in the way of the recovery attempt. Then, software follows a virtual stylus moving over the virtual record’s grooves, reproducing the audio as a new digital file. The result: unlocking sound that was inaccessible for more than a century.