Alexander Graham Bell recordings discovered after 130 years
Alexander Graham Bell went on to invent the telephone, but before he did that he experimented with recording devices. The old disks were considered unplayable until new technology gave scientists the chance to listen to the recordings for the first time in 130 years.
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Inventors at the time were in intense competition. Bell, Emile Berliner and Thomas Edison, who invented the phonograph to record sound on tin foil in 1877, each left objects and documentation with the Smithsonian to help prove their innovations were first.Skip to next paragraph
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Bell went so far as to seal some devices in tin boxes for safekeeping at the Smithsonian. Edison's earliest recordings are thought to have been lost.
"This stuff makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck," said curator Carlene Stephens, of the National Museum of American History, before Bell's recordings were played Tuesday. "It's the past speaking directly to us in a way we haven't heard before."
The museum's collection of about 400 of the earliest audio recordings, including 200 from Bell's lab, probably will become an important resource for new research on communications and early technology now that they can be played back, Stephens said.
"These materials have been in a cupboard and virtually unknown for decades," she said. "The collection has been silent."
The Library of Congress partnered with the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley, to offer the first listen of these early recordings Tuesday. Scientists have spent the past 10 years and about $1 million to develop the technology to create high-resolution digital scans of the sound discs.
This year, scholars from the Library of Congress, the Berkeley Lab and the Smithsonian gathered in a new preservation lab at the Library of Congress and recovered sound from those early Bell recordings. A $600,000 three-year grant from the U.S. Institute of Museum and Library Sciences funded the pilot project, and the Smithsonian hopes to continue the work if future grants can be secured.
Advances in computer technology made it possible to play back the recordings, said Carl Haber, a senior scientist at the Berkeley Lab. He noted that 10 years ago specialists would have struggled with computer speeds and storage issues. The digital images that now can be processed into sound within minutes would have taken days to process a decade ago.
Many of the recordings are fragile, and until recently it had not been possible to listen to them without damaging the discs or cylinders.
So far, the sounds of six discs have been successfully recovered through the process, which creates a high-resolution digital map of the disc or cylinder. The map is processed to remove scratches and skips, and software reproduces the audio content to create a standard digital sound file.
Haber, senior scientist at the Berkeley Lab, said Bell's recordings and others in the fierce competition of the 1880s marked the start of the information age as we know it.
"The whole idea that you could capture the world as it exists" in a recording, he said, "they got that in this period."