Finding modern meaning in 130-year old sound

By Julia Falkowski
Alyea in lab with mechanism

I'm willing to bet most people would agree that hearing some of the earliest recorded sound is pretty cool. But what exactly makes it so cool? The museum's "Hear My Voice": Alexander Graham Bell and the Origins of Recorded Sound exhibition contains experimental recordings made by Bell and his Volta Laboratory team in the 1880s on materials such as tin, wax, and cardboard. It took a team that included one Smithsonian curator, one Library of Congress sound preservationist, and two Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory physicists to recover the sound on these recordings. Coming from different backgrounds, each team member has a unique perspective on the recordings' significance.

A round, deteriorated record

What do I think is cool about the recordings? They show the incredible amount of effort and creativity that went into discovering how to capture sound. And here I am, 130 years later, navigating to the voice memo app of a tablet so that I, with a tap of my finger, can record my conversation with the team that made the Volta audio available to modern ears.

The team told me that the project began taking shape when curator Carlene Stephens saw a news story about scientists Carl Haber and Earl Cornell and their sound-recovery process called IRENE (Image, Reconstruct, Erase Noise, Etc.), which could read delicate recordings without damaging them. IRENE takes high-resolution pictures of recordings and digitally reconstructs the sound they contain. Stephens hoped this process, the tools for which had been installed in Peter Alyea's Library of Congress sound preservation lab, might be a good match for the fragile and complex Volta recordings. The interested parties met and agreed to experiment with the 1880s recordings on IRENE. A few years and a lot of work allowed the sounds of the past to be heard.

A man wearing gloves stands over a large piece of scientific equipment

Stephens is most interested in what value the project might have for historians, an area, she explained, that is still being explored. Already, some basic questions such as "What did Alexander Graham Bell sound like?" have been answered, leading to revelations including the fact that Bell pronounces his middle name "gray-am" rather than "gram." Stephens also explained that some "historians investigating the significance of Shakespeare in the 19th century are eager for this material." Analyzing what Shakespeare passages Bell’s team chose to try recording helps illustrate the ways Americans at the time were interacting with the work of the Bard.

Three men and one woman stand in front of an exhibit wall

Alyea sees value in the impact this project and IRENE have had on the sound preservation community: "I feel like the thing I like most about IRENE is that it challenges what preservation of audio should be and can be and applies a different way of thinking about audio preservation." The ability to recapture sound through non-invasive methods can unlock new worlds of audio that the preservation community, and broader society, would not have had access to previously for fear of ruining the originals. Examples include thousands of early field recordings of American Indian voices and languages, which IRENE's designers are hoping will become a new major project for the process.

Adding an extra layer of meaning to scientific pursuits is an appealing part of this project for Cornell and Haber. Cornell mused, "I think it's fun to do science but with history as an added part, it just brings a whole new level to it." Haber agreed and added that a highlight for him was bringing students into the project. He explained, science students "who would normally have just gone on in their education and become engineers … get to see a side of science and technology that most students would never see, and make great contributions to the work." Students involved in the work get to explore the diverse ways science can make a difference in society.

A round record

Haber also spoke about how lucky he felt to get closer to the creative and innovative individuals that initially inspired him to pursue science: "Albert Einstein and Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Edison, these were the people that you learned about, and they were kind of your heroes as a kid. I never thought that I would ever actually get to know them in this more significant way."

Now that this new-found ability to unlock sounds of the past is sinking in, what do you find fascinating or intriguing about the possibilities?

Peter Alyea is a specialist in audio preservation at the Library of Congress who works on the development of the IRENE technology and preservation issues threatening the sustainability of our audio history. Earl Cornell is a software developer in the engineering division of Lawrence Berkeley National Lab. Carl Haber is an experimental physicist at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab who works on high energy radiation detectors, as well as technology to restore early sound recordings. Carlene Stephens is a curator in the Division of Work and Industry at the National Museum of American History, home to the collection of experimental sound recordings.

Julia Falkowski is an intern in the New Media Department of the National Museum of American History.