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Hearing 130-Year-Old Recordings For The First Time

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One of the 130 year old glass recording discs created by Alexander Graham Bell.
Courtesy of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory
One of the 130 year old glass recording discs created by Alexander Graham Bell.

Shortly after Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone, he conducted a series of experiments with recorded sound. Those recordings, made in the early 1880s, were eventually stored away, and considered unplayable until now.

The recordings were created in Washington D.C. around 1884 by Bell, his cousin Chichester Bell, and Charles Sumner Tainter. Now, some of them -- including one of an unknown speaker reciting the famous "To be, or not to be" soliloquy from Shakespeare's Hamlet, are available to be heard in D.C. once again, at the Library of Congress, at the National Musuem of American History, and online. 

Bell and his associates were trying to improve the recording ability of Thomas Edison's highly touted but chronically fragile phonograph, invented 7 years earlier. They tried a variety of surfaces to record on, including a glass photo disc recorded with a beam of light. 

Carlene Stephens, curator at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, says that innovation was the genesis of the optical audio track for film. 

"They anticipated with this photographic process how movie film has sound on it, and they anticipated magnetic recording," she says. "So they pointed the way for future sound technologies."

Carl Haber, a physicist with Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California, helped develop the process to play back the old recordings with the help of technicians at the Library of Congress.

"We take a computer algorithm and model the way the needle would move through a groove, which is just a digital image and then simulate the playback mathematically," Haber says.  

Right now, no one knows who's speaking in the recordings. Stephens and her staff are currently at work on a second phase of the project to identify the speakers and further enhance the recordings.

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