The Smithsonian Institution has recovered the only known voice recording of Alexander Graham Bell. Think about that. We credit him with giving us telephony, but given that he died in 1922, it’s a pretty sure bet none of us heard him speak in the flesh.
And thereby hangs a tale.
Bell undertook his research into audio recording during the 1880s at his Volta labs in Washington DC. His main competitor was Thomas Edison, a man who could probably still teach our business a thing or two about patent wars (but we’ll pass on the baseball bats). So Bell and the Volta team sought to closely document their rival R&D. Just in case.
In the end, Alexander Graham Bell would not be the father of recorded sound. And, during his time as a trustee of the Smithsonian himself, he passed on papers, cylinders and discs from the unrealized research for safekeeping in its archives. Once the Smithsonian realized what it had, it naturally wanted to reconstitute what should already have been one of the most famous voices of all time.
The problem was that, for at least 90 years, it couldn’t.
Bell’s papers did not give any indication as to how the test recordings had been played back. The documentation was actually incomplete.
Coming forward to today, the Smithsonian has been able to work with researchers from the Lawrence Berkeley National Labs in California to reconstitute a speaking Alexander Graham Bell using modern technology.
Two years ago, Lawrence Berkeley revealed that it had been able to recover paper-based recordings of French audio experiments that predated even those of Bell and Edison. It used high resolution optical scans to analyze the surfaces of the recordings and recreate the audio waveforms they contained.
The same technique has now been used to scan a wax-and-paper disc with a recording of Bell’s voice from April 15, 1885.
But shouldn’t we all have heard it quite some time ago? So when you hear your design manager insist on getting it all recorded somewhere – obviously, in a readable format – perhaps this story is one worth remembering. Indeed, our work now is so complex, you can never be absolutely sure what really will be important, today or in the future. Documentation matters.
Meanwhile, the Smithsonian’s own magazine tells the fuller tale of this amazing rediscovery.
Hear that forthright, deliberative voice of engineering innovation and it’s difficult not to feel absolutely thrilled. Alexander Graham Bell really does ‘speak to us from the past’. Just in more ways than you might think.