WASHINGTON (AP) — Early sound recordings by telephone inventor Alexander Graham Bell and others that had been packed way at the Smithsonian Institution for more than a century were played publicly for the first time Tuesday using new technology.
The recordings revealed a portion of Hamlet’s Soliloquy, a trill of the tongue and someone reciting numbers starting with 1-2-3.
The recordings date back to the 1880s. Bell had moved from Boston to Washington after inventing the telephone and joined a growing group of scientists who made the nation’s capital a hotbed for innovations.
During this time, Bell sent the first wireless telephone message on a beam of light from the roof of a downtown building. He and other inventors also were scrambling to record sound on anything they could find. One early sound record looks like a soup can.
The Library of Congress partnered with the California-based Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory to offer a first listening session of these early recordings Tuesday.
The Smithsonian said in a news release that Graham partnered with Chichester Bell and Charles Sumner Tainter at a lab in Washington in the early 1880s. Their group was known as Volta Laboratory Associates.
On Nov. 17, 1884, they recorded the word “barometer” on a glass disc with a beam of light. This disc and about 200 other experimental records were never played again after being packed up and given to the Smithsonian.
This year, scholars from the Library of Congress, the Berkeley Lab and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History gathered in a new preservation lab at the Library of Congress and recovered sound from those early recordings. The museum’s collection includes about 400 of the early audio recordings, including the 200 from Bell’s Volta Lab.
Many recordings are fragile, and until recently it had not been possible to listen to them without damaging the discs or cylinders, the news release said. So far, six discs have been successfully submitted to the sound recovery 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 and produces a standard digital sound file.