Volta Laboratory Experimental Recording

This is an experimental sound recording made in the Volta Laboratory, Washington, D.C., on 11 March 1885. The recording process involved focusing a beam of light, projecting it through a liquid, and causing sound waves to interrupt both the light and the liquid to expose a prepared photographic plate. The recording, which starts at the center and spirals outward, is of variable density, that is the areas of exposure vary in density according to volume and pitch of the sound recorded. Process is described in U.S. Patent 341,213 awarded Alexander Graham Bell, Chichester A. Bell, and Charles Sumner Tainter on 4 May 1886.
Sound was recovered from this recording in 2011.
Content summary: “Mary had a little lamb”
Content transcript (37 seconds):
“ [?]…Sumner Tainter and H. G. Rogers. This eleventh day of March, eighteen hundred and eighty-five. [trilled r sound] [indistinct phrase] Mary had a little lamb, and its fleece was white as snow [alternatively, black as soot?] . And wherever Mary went…Oh [indistinct word].
Mary had a little lamb, and its fleece was white as snow [alternatively, black as soot?].
And wherever Mary went, the little lamb was sure to go. How is this for high? [trill]”
Patrick Feaster, “A Discography of Volta Laboratory Recordings at the National Museum of American History”
Leslie J. Newville, “Development of the Phonograph at Alexander Graham Bell's Volta Laboratory,” in Contributions from the Museum of History and Technology, United States National Museum Bulletin 218, Paper 5 (1959): 69-79.
Steven E. Schoenherr, “Charles Sumner Tainter and the Graphophone,”
Wile, Raymond R. "The Development of Sound Recording at the Volta Laboratory," Association for Recorded Sound Collections Journal 21, No. 2, 1990, pp. 208-225.
Object Name
experimental sound recording
date made
ca 1885
date recorded
Physical Description
glass, coated with photographic emulsion (overall material)
overall: 1/8 in x 13 5/8 in; .3175 cm x 34.6075 cm
center hole: 1/8 in x 1/4 in; .3175 cm x .635 cm
place made
United States: District of Columbia, Washington
ID Number
catalog number
accession number
Music & Musical Instruments
Hear My Voice
See more items in
Work and Industry: Mechanisms
Hear My Voice
Hear My Voice
Data Source
National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center
Credit Line
Gift of Alexander Graham Bell
Additional Media

Visitor Comments

Add a comment about this object

**Please read before submitting the form**

Have a comment or question about this object to share with the community? Please use the form below. Selected comments will appear on this page and may receive a museum response (but we can't promise). Please note that we generally cannot answer questions about the history, rarity, or value of your personal artifacts.

Have a question about anything else, or would you prefer a personal response? Please visit our FAQ or contact page.

Personal information will not be shared or result in unsolicited e-mail. See our privacy policy.

Enter the characters shown in the image.