Last week, the Smithsonian announced a stunning feat of digital archeology: a recording of the voice of Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone, has been recovered from a wax and cardboard disk in the museum’s Bell archives. It’s an impressive accomplishment because, until now, there has been no known record of what the first voice to speak over a telephone actually sounded like.
As it turns out, one of Bell’s post-telephony research areas involved, quite naturally, sound recording. He improved on the early phonograph work of Thomas Edison, substituting more durable wax for Edison’s original choice of tin foil as the recording medium. Some of these early prototypes ended up in the Smithsonian collection, but between the poor documentation of the enthusiastic inventors and the passage of the years, curators had no good way of knowing what each recording actually contained. And since the workings of the playback mechanisms had been lost to time, the audio remained trapped in wax for over a century.
The advent of high-resolution optical scanning has opened the possibility of actually accessing the recordings, though. Take a nice scan of a record’s surface, develop a computational model to translate mechanical deformations in the wax to sound, et voilà, the audio can be found again, provided the wax medium hasn’t deteriorated too much. And that’s exactly what the Smithsonian team has done, unlocking Bell’s voice along with a raft of other material laid down by his team.
This is a tantalizing glimpse of media that, quite honestly, seemed lost in the fog of analog/digital pre-history. We don’t really know what George Washington looked like, beyond various artists’ interpretations of the man, but we know exactly how Abraham Lincoln appeared before and during his presidency, since photography was well established by the 1860s. And yet, much was made of Daniel Day-Lewis’ interpretation of Lincoln’s voice in last year’s Spielberg film. Day-Lewis certainly did his research, but all he had to go on was written accounts. Sound recording wouldn’t be invented by Edison until a decade after Lincoln’s death, so we’ll never know how right Day-Lewis got it. But we could all spot a bad JFK impersonation a mile away, since we have numerous recordings of his speeches. Over the last 200 years, the timing of a historical figure’s rise to prominence more or less dictated the fidelity of our model of them in modernity. Although Bell lived through the early proliferation of audio recording, apparently no one at the time thought to capture for posterity the sound of the first voice to make a phone call. And Bell himself, who lived more than 30 years after making that wax disk, either forgot he’d done it or didn’t consider it worth noting when transferring his archives to the Smithsonian.
This ghost information, locked into old storage media and forgotten, is enabling a new kind of archeology. All the code used to manage the Apollo moon landings, for example, is probably still locked in iron core memories sitting quietly in some basement or warehouse, waiting for future digital archeologists to unlock and reverse-engineer long after the original coders have faded away. The Smithsonian has managed to accomplish something even more delightful here: recovering an audio sample from storage media so old that it almost seems silly to describe it in those terms.
It’s probable that Bell had no idea of the recording’s significance. But then again, maybe he did. The message, which you can hear below in Bell’s own words from beyond the grave, does seem like an X marking the spot in a charming digital treasure hunt for future generations:
"Hear my voice -- Alexander Graham Bell."