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Recovering the Voice of Alexander Graham Bell from a 19th Century Recording

By Wesley Fenlon

Thanks to some sophisticated scanning technology, the Smithsonian has pulled audio from previously unplayable recordings that date back to the 1880s.

Back before the late 1880s, no recordings of sound exist. We can only imagine the voices of world leaders and important historical figures. Sometimes biographies help, like in the case of Abraham Lincoln--Daniel Day-Lewis reproduced his supposedly high-pitched voice in last year's biopic, but it's impossible to know exactly what the 16th president sounded like. If there's any one man who deserves to have his voice preserved for the ages, though, it's Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone. Not only did Bell invent the most important audio device in history, his Volta Laboratory improved upon Thomas Edison's invention of the phonograph by creating wax recordings.

Today we're in luck, because Bell did record his voice more than a century ago, in early experiments with different recording formats. It's just that, until now, no one has been able to play them.

Smithsonian has the great story of pursuing Bell's voice, which includes talking to his 99-year-old granddaughter in 2004 and piecing together the influences on his accent--Edinburgh Scotland, London, and multiple cities in Canada. Before his death in 1922, Bell regularly donated materials from his laboratory to the Smithsonian. Those donations included 400 early attempts at recording sound, which would never play on a turntable today:

"Inside the lab, Bell and his associates bent over their pioneering audio apparatus, testing the potential of a variety of materials, including metal, wax, glass, paper, plaster, foil and cardboard, for recording sound, and then listening to what they had embedded on discs or cylinders," writes Smithsonian. "However, the precise methods they employed in early efforts to play back their recordings are lost to history.

"As a result, says curator Carlene Stephens of the National Museum of American History, the discs, ranging from 4 to 14 inches in diameter, remained 'mute artifacts.' "

When the Smithsonian discovered that a physicist named Carl Haber had used modern technology to extract sound from a 150-year-old Parisian recording, however, they got in touch, and Haber worked the same magic on some of Bell's discs. And from one of them, these words emerged: "Hear my voice: Alexander Graham Bell!"

Hit The Smithsonian to listen to the recording. Even though it's only a few seconds long, it's pretty wild, and it's easy to imagine Bell enunciating as loudly and clearly as possible as he made the recording. The story also has a short video which shows off some of the equipment Haber and the Smithsonian used to recover voices that have been dead and gone for most of a century. Finally, if you want to here some more of Bell's voice, here he is counting up a storm: