The only known recording of Alexander Graham Bell’s voice is going on display at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., along with other early experimental recordings from Bell’s Volta Laboratory Associates. The exhibition “Hear My Voice”: Alexander Graham Bell and the Origins of Recorded Sound opened on January 26th and runs through July 1st.
Alexander Graham Bell recorded himself rattling off numbers and concluding with an appropriately historic sign-off (“In witness whereof, hear my voice. Alexander Graham Bell.”) on April 15th, 1885. His voice was engraved on a wax-on-composition-board disc at the Volta Laboratory in D.C. where Alexander, his cousin Chichester A. Bell and scientific instrument maker Charles Sumner Tainter experimented in the early recording and transmission of sound. Bell used prize money he had won from the French Government for the invention of the telephone to found the Volta Laboratory in 1880-1. The work they did for the next six years, much of it improvements in existing technology rather than brand new inventions, resulted in several patents.
To ensure they had incontrovertible evidence of the process should anyone contest a patent, the Volta Laboratory deposited their recordings, documents and devices at the Smithsonian almost as soon as they were made. After the Volta Laboratory patents were transferred to the Volta Bureau where Bell focused on the study of deafness, the original Volta Lab archive remained at the Smithsonian. For more than a century, the Institution had more than 400 of the earliest sound recordings in its archives but because these experimental media and technologies were so delicate they were unplayable, they had no way to figure out what was on the records.
That changed in 2011 when curator Carlene Stephens at the National Museum of American History read that the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California was successfully recovering sound from damaged, unplayable early recordings using an optical scanner and digital audio software. The scanner creates a digital map of the surface of a record. The map is cleaned of scratches and skips and then run through software that replicates the movement a stylus would make through the grooves of a disc or cylinder to reproduce the audio on the digital map. The result is a digital sound file of the recording made without adding any trauma to the original medium.
Stephens set up a collaborative project between the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, the Library of Congress and the National Museum of American History to scan six of the hundreds of recordings from the Volta collection. That was expanded in 2013 to include another three recordings. The wax disc with Alexander Graham Bell’s voice was one of the three. A written transcript of the contents of the record signed and dated by Alexander Graham Bell confirmed that it was the man himself reciting those numbers.
This video shows the Bell transcript scrolling along with the recording:
The exhibition will place the delicate experimental recordings on display in the Albert H. Small Documents Gallery. The diverse media Bell experimented with — a glass disc, a green wax disc on a brass holder, a tiny green disc — will be seen in public for the first time. They will be accompanied by original documents, notes, Volta Laboratory technology like the graphophone and sundry objects like the cover of a tin box Bell used to deposit some of his earliest experiments at the Smithsonian in October of 1881.
When the exhibition closes on July 1st, 2015, the National Museum of American History will launch its new space dedicated to the history of American invention. It will open “42,000 square feet of exhibition galleries, hands-on programs, performance spaces and an education center on its first floor.”