Scottish inventor Alexander Bell has earned the distinction, somewhat late in his career, of having his voice preserved in the world’s oldest recording.
For years, that record was held by Thomas Edison, who in 1888, when he was not trying to ruin Nikola Tesla for being cleverer than him, recorded his voice on a phonograph.
Bell made a recording in 1885 on a rare experimental phonograph which used a wax and cardboard disk. Edison used embossed foil, while Bell tested a variety of materials, including paper, plaster, metal, wax and cardboard.
Bell’s four to 14-inch discs were thought to be “mute artifacts” because they were too fragile to play.
However, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory physicist Carl Haber, National Museum of American History curator Carlene Stephens and Library of Congress digital conversion specialist Peter Alyea used laser technology to salvage the voice of Bell. The audio recovered has Bell say, “In witness whereof — hear my voice, Alexander Graham Bell”.
The Smithsonian owns more than 400 disks and cylinders used by Bell in his attempts to record sound. Bell was a member of the Smithsonian’s Board of Regents, and he donated his laboratory materials to the museum in 1922.
According to the IBT, the technique that the researchers used is called optical scanning and it reconstructing the objects into digital maps. The scientists remove evidence of scratches by filling in the blanks on the computer sound track. The finished digital map is then run through a piece of software that recreates the motion of a stylus moving through the grooves of the disc or cylinder, which reproduces the audio content into a standard sound file.
The fact that Bell does not appear to have a Scottish accent might have something to do with his dad Alexander Melville Bell being a famous elocution teacher. Bell Sr would probably have got Bell Jr to stop rolling his Rs.
Here is a tape of him counting: