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Volta Laboratory disc recording with Alexander Graham Bell’s voice (December 29, 1881), reproduced in 1885 in tinfoil over plaster on cardboard backing (photo by Richard Strauss, Smithsonian, all images courtesy Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History unless noted)

WASHINGTON, DC — Out of patent litigation paranoia, inventor Alexander Graham Bell donated copies of his devices and sound recordings directly to the Smithsonian. He had, after all, experienced hundreds of challenges to his telephone patent in 1876. For over a century, most of those recordings when unheard. Recently the Smithsonian collaborated with Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory and the Library of Congress to harness particle physics technology and retrieve the only known recording of Graham’s voice, released to the public in 2013.

Alexander Graham Bell (courtesy Smithsonian Institution Archives) (click to enlarge)

Hear My Voice: Alexander Graham Bell and the Origins of Recorded Sound at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History (NMAH) is a tale of two scientists: Graham with his Volta Laboratory and physicist Carl Haber at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory. Haber explored noninvasive techniques used for the 3D digital mapping of subatomic particles to “play” a record without physically touching it. In a way these stories are inverses of one another, with the 19th-century laboratory devoted to sound recording and the 21st-century to extraction. Old Volta Lab records are displayed beneath glass at NMAH, many on public view for the first time, while a listening kiosk plays their sounds. Devices Bell perfected such as the graphophone —an adaptation of Edison’s phonograph that substituted a wax cylinder for tin foil — are also included. On the cylinder, Bell’s father recorded a line from Hamlet with an addendum: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in our philosophy. I am a graphophone, and my mother was a phonograph.”

Graphophone recorded in October of 1881. Content: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in our philosophy. I am a graphophone and my mother was a phonograph.” Voice of Alexander Melville Bell, Alexander Graham Bell’s father

NMAH is celebrating American innovation in 2015, culminating this month with the opening of a new section of the museum devoted to invention in the United States. The recordings in Hear My Voice are just part of around 400 of the world’s earliest audio held in its collections. An online exhibition includes many of the featured recordings, including Bell’s, made on April 15, 1885. Along with it a piece of paper served as a transcript, signed “in witness whereof, hear my voice, Alexander Graham Bell.”

You can listen to Bell’s voice, and follow along with the transcript, below:

Handwritten list of numbers, witnessed by Alexander Graham Bell on 15 April 1885. Unregistered item, reference material. Cropped by DAMPP staff for Web use. Transcript of Alexander Graham Bell’s voice disc

Experimental wax disc with the only confirmed recording of the voice of Alexander Graham Bell (1885) (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Tin box lid sealed October of 1881, Volta Laboratory. Inscription reads: “Washington, D.C./October 19th 1881,/Deposited on behalf of Alexander Graham Bell,/Sumner Tainter, and Chichester A. Bell, /members of the Volta Laboratory /Association, by the undersigned–/Sumner Tainter/Chichester A. Bell”

Hamlet green wax disc (likely 1884-85). Content: Man reciting opening line’s of Hamlet’s “To be, or not to be” soliloquoy

Carlene Stephens and Shari Stout with a glass disc from Alexander Graham Bell’s Volta Laboratory (2011)

Glass disc recording (March 11, 1885). Content: A man saying names, recording the date, and reciting “Mary had a little lamb”

Tiny green disc (Autumn of 1881). Content: “one, two, three, four, five, six [two trilled rs]”

Hear My Voice: Alexander Graham Bell and the Origins of Recorded Soundcontinues at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History (14th St and Constitution Avenue, NW, Washington, DC) through January 31, 2016. 

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Allison Meier

Allison C. Meier is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Oklahoma, she has been covering visual culture and overlooked history for print...