What did Alexander Graham Bell sound like? Now we know.

April 24, 2013

Try to think of a world without recorded sound. No radios, televisions or telephones.

Out of that relative silence rings a voice: Alexander Graham Bell’s — the man widely credited with the invention of the telephone.

Alexander Graham Bell
This is an undated photograph of Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone. (AP Photo)

On a wax disc recording from 1885 held by the Smithsonian Institution, Bell can be heard saying, “Hear my voice, Alexander Graham Bell,” the Associated Press reports. The discovery was announced Wednesday.

The Smithsonian holds a variety of experiments in sound recording from Bell’s Volta Laboratory in Washington, including the wax disc. Technicians from the Library of Congress and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California collaborated with the museum to identify Bell’s voice.

“I think it’s really a important that we now have a process, a new invention in the service of invention to get sound off of these virtually unplayable recordings,” said National Museum of American History Curator Carlene Stephens, in a video posted on Smithsonian.com.

The audio of the recording is available on the Smithsonian Web site (it’s also embedded above), alongside the story behind its extraction. In the piece, Charlotte Gray writes:

“In that ringing declaration, I heard the clear diction of a man whose father, Alexander Melville Bell, had been a renowned elocution teacher (and perhaps the model for the imperious Prof. Henry Higgins, in George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion; Shaw acknowledged Bell in his preface to the play). I heard, too, the deliberate enunciation of a devoted husband whose deaf wife, Mabel, was dependent on lip reading. And true to his granddaughter’s word, the intonation of the British Isles was unmistakable in Bell’s speech. The voice is vigorous and forthright—as was the inventor, at last speaking to us across the years.”

What do you think of Bell’s voice and the recording? Let us know in the comments.

Alexander Graham Bell recording
This undated handout photo provided by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History shows a detail view of a phonorecord by Alexander Graham Bell. Researchers have identified the voice of Alexander Graham Bell for the first time in some of the earliest audio recordings held at the Smithsonian Institution. (AP Photo/Richard Strauss, Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History)
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Emi Kolawole · April 24, 2013