Alexander Graham Bell’s 1885 voice recordings brought back to life

“In witness whereof — hear my voice, Alexander Graham Bell.” These are some of the oldest recorded words ever heard, recovered by a multidisciplinary team at Washington’s Smithsonian after 128 years. Scottish born Alexander Graham Bell might be best known for…

“In witness whereof — hear my voice, Alexander Graham Bell.”

These are some of the oldest recorded words ever heard, recovered by a multidisciplinary team at Washington’s Smithsonian after 128 years.

Scottish born Alexander Graham Bell might be best known for inventing the telephone, but he in fact made some of the earliest sound recordings while experimenting with different medium in his Volta Laboratory in Washington between 1880 and 1886. Unlike Thomas Edison, who wowed audiences on June 22 1878 with his playback of a cornet solo and a recitation of “Mary Had a Little Lamb”, or even Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville, whose ten-second 1960 recording of Au Clair de la Lune was recently restored, Bell did not just record on embossed tin foil cylinders. He experimented with a number of materials, including metal, glass, paper, plaster and cardboard. The revived recording, dating from April 15 1885, was on wax, the medium that Edison would go on to popularise and mass market.

Playing back these fragile old recordings in the usual way was never going to be a possibility — the wear and tear making it too risky. In the early days of wax recordings cylinders would get worn down over time, sometimes being completely smoothed out to rerecord over. Grooves on the earliest cylinders are therefore smoothed out in places, producing gaps in the sound.The archive team at the Smithsonian are, however, in the ownership of 400 discs and cylinders bequeathed to them by Bell himself from the 1880s until his death in 1922. They did not announce the stash until 2011, by which time universities had begun trialling a kind of digitisation of old, defunct recordings.

Physicist Carl Haber of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, along with a team made up of audio historians, brought to life the 1860 recording of “Au Clair de la Lune”, made on a phonautograph. Now a phonautograph was never actually intended to playback music. Using a quill attached to a vibrating membrane, it would simply etch a visual recording of sound onto foil, creating a phonautogram. But by scanning the phonautogram and using software to convert the lines of the recording into their corresponding sounds, Haber could map the music and play it back as a common sound file. The technique is called optical scanning. National Museum of American History curator Carlene Stephens got in touch with Haber and the pair collaborated on the Bell recordings revival, along with digital conversion specialist from the Library of Congress Peter Alyea and physicist Earl Cornell.
Together they generated a high resolution scan from the 10-35cm
discs, that would be converted to an audio file.What they uncovered were the muffled sounds of Bell, in an
accent born via Scotland, London, Canada and the US, reciting
Hamlet’s soliloquy, his own name, a sequence of numbers, and that
old favourite “Mary Had a Little Lamb”.Charlotte Gray, a biographer of Alexander Graham Bell who
wrote an article on the find for the Smithsonian, recalled the
moment she first heard his voice played back:“In that ringing declaration, I heard the clear diction of a man
whose father, Alexander Melville Bell, had been a renowned
elocution teacher… I heard, too, the deliberate enunciation of a
devoted husband whose deaf wife, Mabel, was dependent on lip
reading. And true to his granddaughter’s word [Mabel Grosvenor],
the intonation of the British Isles was unmistakable in Bell’s
speech. The voice is vigorous and forthright, as was the inventor,
at last speaking to us across the years.”

The man who dedicated his life to understanding speech —
creating the visible
speech technique with his father to help deaf children speak
and founding a Boston school to train teachers of the deaf — has
finally been given a voice.

Edited by Nate Lanxon

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