Between 1880 and 1881, Alexander Graham Bell quietly delivered three loads of sealed tin boxes from Volta Laboratories to the Smithsonian Museum in Washington D.C. Patent fights loomed on the horizon, and Bell, who held the Smithsonian in high regard, trusted the institution to keep evidence of his experimental recordings and devices safe.
Over the next few decades, the Smithsonian collections expanded to include hundreds of Volta Laboratory’s early recordings and notebooks, including an additional apparatus donated by Bell in 1915. Bell never came back to claim these items, and it wasn’t until 2009 that scientists actually began efforts to recover sound on the recordings.
This Fall, the Smithsonian National Museum of American History plans to reignite efforts to recover sound from about 300 of these early recordings. So for the first time in history, the public will be able to hear Bell and his team at work as they unravel the mystery of sound in the 1880s.
What’s On Bell’s Early Audio Recordings?
The experimental audio recordings contain the voices of the Bells, including Alexander, his cousin Chichester, his father, Alexander Melville Bell, and Charles Sumner. They were made at the Volta Laboratory in Washington, D.C. and Bell’s estate in Nova Scotia.
Bell’s research involved experimental recording techniques such as magnetic reproduction, photography, and even waxed paper tapes, all in pursuit of the most durable recording medium. The experiments resulted in the creation of the wax cylinder record and the machine that played them—the graphophone.
You won’t hear speeches or symphonies on these recordings. Instead, many include nursery rhymes, counting, trilling, or even passages from Shakespearean tragedies.
Using state-of-the-art technology called IRENE, here are some of the recordings that researchers have managed to salvage so far (courtesy of The Smithsonian’s digital exhibit, “Hear My Voice”).
The Wax Disc
One experimental wax disc contains the only confirmed recording of the voice of Alexander Graham Bell.
Made in 1885 to test the recorded clarity of spoken numbers, Bell counts for several minutes before concluding, “This record has been made by Alexander Graham Bell in the presence of Dr. Chichester A. Bell—on the fifteenth of April, 1885, at the Volta Laboratory, 1221 Connecticut Ave., Washington, D.C. In witness whereof—hear my voice. Alexander Graham Bell.”
The Brass Disk
Created in 1884, the Brass Disk with Green Wax was created to show the effects of dye on qualities of wax. It contains the voice of an unknown male speaker who recites Hamlet.
“To be, or not to be: that is the question. Whether it is nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles, and in opposing end them? To die: to sleep.”
The Binder’s Board Disc
Bell wasn’t just interested in recording telephone conversations and business meetings—he was also curious about how music might be recorded using these same methods. This recording contains some of the earliest-recorded musical selections: “Hot-Shot March” and “Killarney.”
How Are Researchers Recovering the Original Audio?
Volta Laboratory’s experiments proved instrumental in fueling broadcast media in music and entertainment, as well as preserving ethnographic research. The Smithsonian’s research provides hope for preserving the earliest sound records from around the world, which is currently at risk of being lost to us forever.
Using insights from instruments used to detect subatomic particles, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory developed a new recovery method called IRENE beginning in 2003.
IRENE (Image, Reconstruct, Erase Noise, Etc.) consists of instruments for making high-resolution images of sound recordings without touching them and then using patented software for converting those images to digital sound files.
The system can retrieve sound safely from historical recordings made on a wide variety of media—regardless of their condition. Audio can be retrieved from fragile carriers without risk of groove wear, as well as from damaged and broken carriers that are otherwise unplayable.
Join Us In Supporting the Next Generation of Innovators
The Alexander and Mabel Bell Legacy Foundation is proud to have provided invaluable support for this initiative along with the Save America’s Treasures program and Linda and Mike Curb.
We’re a nonprofit organization founded to preserve and protect the legacy of Alexander and Mabel Bell—and we’re asking for your help in driving our mission forward.
Our foundation helps preserve history while also promoting the next generation of engineers, scientists, and innovators.