Pop quiz: Who invented the telephone?
That was one of many discoveries made by a team of curators and particle physicists when they played an 1885 cardboard and wax disc in 2012. The only known recording of Bell’s voice, the record (which will be on display) captured the inventor as he counted to 40 and then rattled off some larger numbers. After almost five minutes, he concludes the test by saying, “in witness whereof, hear my voice, Alexander Graham Bell.”
“Hearing his voice for the first time, it made the hair stand up on the back of my neck,” Stephens says. “It was like hearing directly from the past in a way we hadn’t been able to before.”
The exhibit tells two stories of innovation in sound recording. One was led by Bell in the late 1880s, here in D.C. The other was spearheaded by physicist Carl Haber at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, Calif.
Using instrumentation developed to track subatomic particles, Haber, his colleagues, and curators at the Library of Congress developed a process for scanning delicate commercially produced records and playing them with a virtual stylus. They named the device IRENE, after “Goodnight, Irene” — a 1950 rendition of the song, performed by The Weavers, was the first record they played with the scanner. (They made it an acronym, “Image, Reconstruct, Erase Noise, Etcetera,” after the fact.) Later, the group worked with the Smithsonian to apply the technique to early recordings made with wax, metal, glass and other unusual materials.
“It’s a non-invasive, non-contact way of getting sound from a record without touching the surface,” Stephens says. “It’s like a curator’s dream.”
Before IRENE, it was impossible to play early recordings without damaging or destroying them. For instance, Thomas Edison’s phonograph used a needle to read etchings in a piece of tin foil wrapped around a cylinder. After just a few playbacks, the needle ripped the recording to shreds.
Part of Bell’s quest was to find a more durable medium. Flush with success from his 1876 invention of the telephone, Bell set up the Volta Laboratory in 1880 to explore the frontier of sound recording. (The lab was at 1221 Connecticut Ave. NW, now Lucky Bar). There, he and his associates experimented with all sorts of devices, including a reel-to-reel machine that recorded onto wax-coated tape.
In the end, Bell and his lab gave up on the discs and improved Edison’s phonograph by replacing the tinfoil cylinder with a wax cylinder. Their invention, called the Graphophone, became a commercially successful dictation machine.
As protection against future patent battles, Bell, Edison and other inventors boxed up their experiments with newspapers and other time-stamped material (to prove when their devices were invented) and donated them to the Smithsonian for safekeeping. These artifacts — some 500 of them — sat silently in storage for more than a century. Now, thanks to IRENE, Smithsonian curators are embarking on a long process to discover what they have to say.
“We are hoping to do more of this sound recovery, and maybe even get our own IRENE setup,” Stephens says. “We’ve only played a fraction of what we have so far.”
National Museum of American History, 1400 Constitution Ave. NW; through Oct. 25, free.
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