Scientists make it possible to hear Alexander Graham Bell's voice

With support from multiple organizations, the National Museum of American History will work on recovering the sound recordings of Alexander Graham Bell.
Kavita Verma
digitization of sound waves

Ten years ago, people had never heard the voice of Alexander Graham Bell. But in 2013, Smithsonian researchers at the National Museum of American History discovered an unplayable recording of the telephone inventor. The Smithsonian's National Museum plans to embark on the recovery of Bell's earliest recordings this fall. Save America's Treasure program has offered private funding through an initial grant for the work.

Organizations offering support

Additional support from Linda and Mike Curb and Seal Storage Technology will help the researchers focus on hundreds of recordings of Graham Bell and his colleagues at Washington's Volta Laboratory and at Bell's property in Baddeck, Nova Scotia. The SEDDI Inc. and the Alexander and Mabel Bell Legacy foundation offered additional support. 

The innovations made by the Volta Laboratory in sound recording and playback were crucial to the development of the broadcast, music, and entertainment industries, as well as to preserving cultures and endangered languages through ethnographic research. 

The museum's Elizabeth MacMillan Director, Anthea M. Hartig, said, "Through this partnership, we are thrilled to finally make available for listening about 300 recordings that have been collecting dust in our museum's collection for over a century,". She further added that her team is grateful to the public and private funding that has made this exciting and innovative project possible."

Mike Curb, the founder and chairman of Curb Records, said he had great respect for the recordings of Graham Bell and he had dedicated his career to the recording industry from an early age. Linda and Mike are proud to support the work of making the Bell's recording accessible again.

Michael Horowitz, the CEO of Seal Storage Technology, said Seal is honored to support the important work of offering us a glimpse into history. The project is a Web3 cloud storage provider that aligns perfectly with their goal to preserve history using the technology.

Restoring the collection

Alexander Graham Bell, born in Scotland in 1847, is widely known as the telephone inventor. On March 7, 1876, he was granted a patent for his invention. Soon after, he made history by making his first phone call to his laboratory assistant, famously saying, "Mr. Watson, come here; I want to see you."

In the past few years, scientists have retrieved sound from 20 experimental recordings at the Volta Laboratory, including the unique recordings of Bell's voice. The new initiative will focus on restoring the rest of the collection.

Carlene Stephens, Curator at the National Museum of American History, said in 2013 that the research team was working on translating the cardboard-and-wax discs that were created by Bell and his associates, which were once considered "mute artifacts." She questioned if the content of the discs would ever be heard.

However, thanks to the efforts of museum experts, the Library of Congress, and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, a new method has been devised to hear the recordings. The team utilizes computers to generate a digital scan of the grooves on the wax disc, eliminating any scratches or damage that could hinder the recovery process. Then, utilizing software, the team was successful in reproducing the voice recording in a digital file. As a result, the sound that has been inaccessible for over a century can now be heard.

The process of recovering sound

The sound recovery process employs an optical method that Berkeley Lab employees first created in 2002. Developed in partnership with the Library of Congress and other organizations over the past 15 years, this technique creates a high-resolution digital map of a disc or cylinder. 

The software determines the movement of the stylus through the virtual record's grooves to reproduce the audio content and create a standard digital sound file. The result is an unlocking of sound – making sound that was inaccessible for more than a century finally accessible. More details about the process can be found here. You can check the online exhibition for more detailed information on Museum's Volta laboratory collection. 

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