Article: From the Collections--A Voice from the Past :: Smithsonian Lemelson Center
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Kate Wiley, Lemelson Center Public Affairs Specialist

Glass disc recording, produced photographically on Novemeber 17, 1884. Smithsonian image by Richard Strauss.

In the early 1880s, three inventors—Alexander Graham Bell, Chichester Bell, and Charles Sumner Tainter, who collectively made up the Volta Laboratory Association—brought their creativity and expertise together in a laboratory on Connecticut Avenue in Washington, D.C., to record sound. Bell and Tainter began their research on sound in 1879; Bell’s cousin, Chichester, joined the laboratory in 1880. Among their pathbreaking experiments was one on November 17, 1884, during which they recorded the word “barometer” on a glass disc with a beam of light. The Volta Associates worked on sound research of all sorts until the group dissolved early in 1886.

The early 1880s saw an intense competition among Bell, Thomas Edison, and Emile Berliner to invent and patent a perfected sound-recording device following the invention of the phonograph by Edison in 1877. Due to Bell’s experience with numerous challenges to his telephone patent, the Volta Associates sought to document their work to demonstrate their priority of invention. Hence, on three occasions—February 28 and April 6, 1880, and October 30, 1881—the Volta Associates deposited sealed tin boxes with the Smithsonian Institution.

The first two boxes contained objects and documents pertaining to the photophone, a device invented to carry sound on light waves. The third box contained a model and notes pertaining to a new sound-recording device—the graphophone. Bell’s extensive precautions proved unnecessary, as no patent disputes arose. The tin boxes remained sealed until 1937 when Smithsonian officials unsealed them in the presence of Bell’s daughters and grandson.

In addition to the contents of the tin boxes, the National Museum of American History’s Division of Work and Industry holds about 400 of the earliest audio recordings ever made; 200 are experimental recordings from the Volta Laboratory, made using a variety of methods and materials. 

Inscription on glass disc recording: "Exp. III Nov. 17 1884/Style vibrations to word/Barometer/H. G. Rogers." Smithsonian photo by Richard Strauss.

These recordings, in fragile condition due to their age and experimental nature, have remained unheard since they were made 130 years ago. In many cases, the only clues to their contents are cryptic inscriptions on the physical recording or vague notes on old catalog cards written by a Smithsonian curator decades ago. While recent scholarship involving home and laboratory notes by the Volta Associates—held in the Museum’s Archives Center and at the Library of Congress—has further illuminated the content of these recordings, many will be relegated to anonymity unless they can be played.

Unfortunately, the Museum cannot simply put these discs onto a record player, drop the needle, and hear a voice from the 1880s. But now, a newly invented sound-recovery process is helping the mystery unravel.

Curators Carlene Stephens and Shari Stout examining one of the Volta recordings. Smithsonian image by Richard Strauss.

In 2011, scholars from three institutions—Museum curators Carlene Stephens and Shari Stout, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory scientists Carl Haber and Earl Cornell, and Library of Congress digital-conversion specialist Peter Alyea—came together in a newly designed preservation laboratory at the Library of Congress to recover sound from six recordings made by the Volta Associates. Using high-resolution digital scans made from the original discs, they were able to hear the word "barometer." 

A Volta recording being scanned at the Library of Congress. Smithsonian photo by Richard Strauss.

The noninvasive optical technique used in this project to scan and recover sounds was first studied by Berkeley Lab in 2002-04 and installed at the Library of Congress in 2006 and 2009. The process optically scans the disc and creates a high-resolution digital map of the disc. The map is then processed to remove evidence of wear or damage (e.g., scratches and skips). Finally, software calculates the motion of a stylus moving through the disc’s grooves, reproducing the audio content and producing a standard digital file.

Recovering sound from the six Volta discs is the first step in an ongoing project to preserve and catalog the Museum’s early recording collection and to provide increased access to the collection and its contents for both the academic community and the public. The content of these recordings, studied in conjunction with the physical discs and cylinders, provides insight into a variety of topics—from the invention process of pioneering 19th-century labs to speech patterns of the late 19th century. As curator Carlene Stephens says, “It’s the past speaking directly to us in a way we haven’t heard before.”

From Prototype, December 2011.

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