He invented a world-changing acoustic device that allows us to send our voices over great distances, but what did telephone creator Alexander Graham Bell's voice sound like? His last living relative who had heard him speak, granddaughter Mabel Grosvenor, died in 2006. The recordings he and his associates made on discs and cylinders (formed of—among other materials—cardboard, wax, and paper) were silent artifacts from which modern technology couldn’t extract information.
Bell donated more than 400 of these discs and cylinders to the Smithsonian Institution. Though the inventor documented his research well (in case patent disputes should arise in the future), the precise methods used in these early audio recording experiments have been lost for decades.
But physicists from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, California have recently made breakthroughs in drawing sound from these discs. By creating high-resolution optical scans and converting those by computer into audio files, the muffled early attempts at recording—unheard for over a century—are audible. Among the recitations of Hamlet, number sequences and nursery rhymes, the team made a particularly notable discovery.
On a 130-year-old disc, recorded on April 15, 1885, is a recording of Alexander Graham Bell’s voice. The legendary inventor declares: “In witness whereof—hear my voice, Alexander Graham Bell.” Even with so few words, much is revealed: Bell's careful enunciation is predictable for a man whose father was a renowned elocution teacher and whose wife was deaf. He lived in England, Canada, and the eastern United States throughout his life, and his voice is tinged with a British accent. For anyone who appreciates Bell’s contributions to modern technology, the recording is awe-inspiring, incredible in its simplicity but groundbreaking in its significance. Head over to Smithsonian to hear Bell speak.