History
3:56 pm
Sun April 28, 2013

First He Invented The Phone. Then, Bell Left A Voice Message

Originally published on Mon April 29, 2013 3:28 pm

As the inventor of the telephone, Alexander Graham Bell is credited with bringing countless voices to our ears. And now, for the first time, here he is imploring us to hear his own voice:

The sound is scratchy. You have to strain to decipher it, but the words are clear. They're from Bell's lips, recorded in 1885 but unveiled just last week by the Smithsonian.

"It lets us know what the past was really like. It fills in a gap for people," says Shari Stout, collections manager at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History.

Stout is part of the team that helped uncover Bell's voice. It reveals in part, that while Bell hailed from Scotland, he spent enough time in the United States that he doesn't have much of a Scottish accent. Bell also came from a family of elocutionists, and as Stout points out, he pronounces words correctly and distinctly.

Bell made the recordings with his partners at the Volta Lab in Washington, D.C. They're among hundreds of experimental discs and cylinders Bell left with the Smithsonian, evidently to protect against a patent dispute.

"They're all different materials," Stout says. "Sometimes they use plaster, sometimes tinfoil, things that look like cardboard — it's very bizarre."

The recordings have sat collecting dust for more than a century. They were too delicate for experts to attempt to extract the sound — until now.

"This is new technology that's been developed by our partners at the Lawrence Berkeley Lab; it's a non-invasive technology using lasers," Stout says. "They started out recovering commercial records. It turns out our curator read about it in The New York Times."

Bell was a bit mundane in the words he chose to put down for posterity. You can hear him at one point counting in dollar denominations. Stout says they're not really sure why Bell was counting money, but they have an idea.

"One of the speculations is that they may have been inventing this technology with the hope toward using it as a business machine," he says. Eventually what came from that technology was applied toward the invention of the dictaphone.

Bell's contribution to sound recording tends to be overshadowed by Thomas Edison's invention of the phonograph in 1877. That could change as the Smithsonian sorts through its cache of recordings. There may be more long-silent treasures we have yet to hear.

"We have a few Berliner pieces and some Edison tinfoils, but the bulk of our collection is from the Bell collection," Stout says. "So we have plenty of things hiding in our cupboard."

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Transcript

JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

As the inventor of the telephone, he's credited with bringing countless voices to us. And now, for the very first time, here he is imploring us to hear his own voice.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ALEXANDER GRAHAM BELL: Hear my voice. Alexander Graham Bell.

LYDEN: Did you get that? He just said: Hear my voice. Alexander Graham Bell.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BELL: Hear my voice. Alexander Graham Bell.

LYDEN: You'll have to forgive the poor quality. It's amazing we have it at all. The recording is nearly 130 years old. Bell made it in 1885.

It lets us know what the past was really like. It fills in a gap for people.

That's Shari Stout, collections manager at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. Stout's part of a team that restored Bell's voice. One thing it reveals, though he hailed from Scotland, Bell spent enough time in the U.S. that he doesn't have much of an accent. And Bell came from a family of elocutionists, so you can tell he's speaking carefully and clearly. Here he is asserting his identity again. He's saying: This record has been made by Alexander Graham Bell.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BELL: This record has been made by Alexander Graham Bell.

LYDEN: The Smithsonian has hundreds of experimental disks and cylinders made by Bell and his partners at the Volta Lab right here in Washington, D.C. Bell left them in the Smithsonian's care, evidently to protect himself against a patent dispute.

They're all different materials. Sometimes they used plaster, sometimes tin foil, things that looked like cardboard. It's very bizarre. If we could show people a picture, they wouldn't believe what they were trying to do to get sound.

But those disks have been collecting dust for more than a century. They were way too fragile for experts to try to extract the sound until now.

This is new technology that's been developed by our partners at the Lawrence Berkeley Lab. It's a noninvasive technology using lasers. They started out recovering commercial records, and it turns out our curator read about it in The New York Times. They had a big break when they recovered "Au Clair De La Lune."

That recording from 1860 is the earliest that we know of.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AU CLAIR DE LA LUNE")

LYDEN: And rather than record a French folk tune, Bell was a bit more mundane. Here he is counting in dollar denominations.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BELL: Half a dollar. A quarter dollar. Three dollars and a half.

LYDEN: So with all the sterling words that Alexander Graham Bell could've left for posterity, why record himself counting money?

We don't really know. One of the speculations is that they may have been inventing this technology with a hope towards using it as a business machine. And indeed, Sumner Tainter, who was one of the partners, did go on to use what came out of this technology for Dictaphones, and those were used in offices.

And there are likely some more long-silent treasures we can look forward to eventually hearing.

We have a few Berliner pieces, and we have some Edison tin foils. But the bulk of our collection is from the Bell collection, so we have plenty of things hiding in our cupboards.

Alexander Graham Bell, hear my voice, a big thank you. We're ringing off now.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.