128-year-old audio recording of Alexander Graham Bell is restored and available to listen to

Alexander Graham Bell

Alexander Graham Bell is famous for inventing the telephone. There has long been a debate about who actually created the first telephone, but that’s not what we’re here to discuss today.

On April 15, 1885 in the American inventor’s Washington, D.C., Volta laboratory, Alexander Graham Bell made a recording for one of many different audio experiments.

The initial recording that Bell created was stored on a ‘wax-on-binder-board disk’ which was labeled as “unplayable” for quite some time, because the technology is so outdated. Bell donated the disk to the Smithsonian Institution’s archive, where it has been ever since. For a long time, researchers have been unable to play back the recording because they weren’t sure what audio device to use, or if the sound quality would be sufficient enough, especially after all this time.

Thanks to researchers from around the country, we can now hear Alexander Graham Bell’s early recording 128 years after the fact. That is pretty incredible stuff folks! The video below is the playback of Bell’s voice as restored by the researchers. It’s, without a doubt, entrancing.

The procedure to obtain the recording from the wax disk was discovered at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. The project itself was a collaboration between Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, the Library of Congress, and Berkeley Lab.

I’ll be honest here, I don’t truly understand the technology used to extract the audio recording, so I’ll just offer this tidbit right from the official source:

Berkeley Lab’s Carl Haber and Earl Cornell developed the noninvasive optical sound recovery technology that gave Bell’s recording a second life. Their method is derived from work on instrumentation for particle physics experiments. It acquires high-resolution digital maps of the surface of audio media without touching them. It then applies image analysis methods to recover the data and reduce the noise of scratches and other damage. A few years ago, Haber and Cornell set up this technology at the Library of Congress, where it’s used to digitally restore audio recordings that are too fragile to play.

This isn’t the first time that the same technology was used to obtain a historic audio sample. Haber and Cornell also restored audio from 1878, from a St. Louis Edison tinfoil recording. They also restored one of the earliest sound recordings in history from the year 1860, which was originally a “phonautograph” paper recording done by a French inventor named Edouard-Leon Scott.

[via The Verge, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory]

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  • AFPhy6

    I believe there never has been an inventor of a higher order than Bell. Only a few stand with him: DaVinci and Edison also come to mind right away – persons with enormous persistence and broad interest to pursue science and engineering natural philosophy.

    We truly stand on the shoulders of giants. When asked which historical figure I would most desire to spend a day with, these are the persons who come to my mind.

  • MerryMarjie

    I am always thunderstruck when pieces of history like this rise to the surface. We tend to think that our immediate ancestors were primitive, simple people, but to recognize the sophisticated science and methodology that they performed, even in those dark ages, is to know that our relatives were smart and inventive, clever people who brought marvels to the public that were wondrous to behold. We may be a bit jaded today when comparative miracles happen on a regular basis, but at that time, inventions like this would have bowled over the average man.

  • normofthenorth

    Ya, thanks, Briley! But simply calling Bell “the American inventor” risks restarting the War of 1812! He did a bunch of his big work in Canada, and also spent most of his latter years on his beloved estate in Nova Scotia. Canadians, as a minority in No. America, tend to claim BOTH immigrants AND emigrants, and AGB is certainly no exception.

  • Louis

    This is excellent Briley !

    Bone chilling stuff …was he a Scotsman ?

  • AFPhy6

    Tremendous! Thanks for posting!

  • kevbo


    My reaction exactly!

    Thanks for this, Briley.

  • Warb

    This sent a shiver down my spine. How the man belonging to the voice changed the world.

  • Seamus McSeamus

    That’s awesome; a true piece of history.

  • Ashraf

    Bell was really good at counting.

    On a serious note, a 128 year old recording? That blows my mind. And to think it isn’t even the oldest recording restored…

    Thanks, Briley. Very interesting stuff. Keep it up.