In the 1880s, Alexander Graham Bell and his associates at Washington, DC's Volta Laboratory experimented with different methods of audio recording. These 19th century audio engineers immortalized snippets of nursery rhymes and a Shakespearean soliloquy to wax discs.

The recordings would languish in the National Museum of American History's archives for decades, as curators lacked the machinery to properly play these priceless early forays into recorded sound.


But thanks to some 21st century aural wizardry, researchers have been able to bring back six of the two-hundred Volta recordings.

Museum archivists worked with a team from the Library of Congress and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory to carefully play these discs, which include such easy listening as a man pronouncing the word "barometer" and another fellow announcing, "It's the 11th day of March 1885."

It's unclear if any of the voices on the Volta recordings belong to Alexander Graham Bell, but it isn't improbable. Explains Berkeley Lab researcher Carl Haber of this heady time in audio engineering history:

From 1881 to 1885, they were recording sound mechanically. They recorded sound magnetically. They recorded sound optically, with light. They tried to reproduce sound with mechanical tools, also with jets of air and liquid. It was an explosion of ideas that they tried [...] There are periods of time when a certain group of people end up in a certain place and a lot of music gets created, or art-Paris in the 1920s and '30s. There are these magic moments, and I think that historians and scholars of technology and invention are viewing Washington in the 1880s as being one of those moments.


Related: The voice of Otto von Bismarck, back from the pits of time.


[Smithsonian via The Atlantic]

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