Thursday, December 15, 2011

Bell speaks from the grave!

1st image) Alexander Graham Bell on the telephone calling Chicago from New York in 1892, 2nd image) Bell’s graphophone from the 1880s, 3rd image) The lid to a tin box deposited at the Smithsonian Institution on Oct. 19, 1881, by Volta Associates.

Something told me to check the weird news before blogging today and there it was: the voice of Alexander Graham Bell (1847-1922), the inventor of the telephone (which he patented in 1876), has been recovered from disks that had lain dormant at the Smithsonian Institution for 130 years. "Let's hear it," I said to myself, always curious about bringing history to life.* What I thought was a link to an audio file wasn't, so I checked the Washington Post (and found a silent slideshow) and the TV station I used to watch before I left Alexandria (nothing). I should have gone directly to the source - the Library of Congress, where a transcript and the sound files below are available:
H.G. Rogers
It’s the eleventh day of March, eighteen hundred and eighty five
Mary had a little lamb…
Trrrr…Mary had a little lamb…
How is this for high? Trrrr
These and other phrases were recorded on green wax discs, copper negative discs, and cylinders in a series of experiments in the early 1880s by Volta Laboratory Associates, which consisted of Bell, his cousin Chichester Bell, and instrument-maker Charles Sumner Tainter. The earliest recordings of Bell's competitor Thomas Edison (1847-1931), who invented the phonograph in 1876, are thought to be lost. But more than 200 of Bell's were given to the Smithsonian for safekeeping, and are now being recovered thanks to a new technology that reads the sound from tiny grooves with light and a 3D camera. The process, developed by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, creates a high-resolution digital map of the disc or cylinder which is then processed to remove scratches and skips and reproduced to create a standard digital sound file. At the press conference on Tuesday, the curator of the National Museum of American History Carlene Stephens said, "This stuff makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck. It's the past speaking directly to us in a way we haven't heard before. These materials have been in a cupboard and virtually unknown for decades. The collection has been silent." Until now.

*See St. Paul stares back, Leonardo's lion, House sat empty, House 100 years later, Supper clubs and speakeasies, and Rediscovered Kitchen.

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