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Early Bell recordings live again (kind of)

Optical scan mimics stylus on 125-year-old wax disks

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The Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratories says it has reconstructed sounds recorded in Alexander Graham Bell’s laboratory in the late 19th century.

Rather than trying to construct a machine to play the recordings, stored at the Smithsonian Institute, the researchers have recovered what has to be described as muddy and difficult-to-understand audio using a 3D optical scanning technique.

According to Physorg.com, the LBNL scientists worked with digital capture specialists and museum curators to capture the samples using a system called IRENE/3D. This takes high-resolution images of the disks, which are then processed to minimize the noise caused by damage and deterioration in the century and a quarter since the recordings were made.

The IRENE/3D system then mimics a stylus moving across the disk to play back the recorded voices – without actually touching the disks.

The recordings had never been played, due to Bell’s paranoia. While working to improve the sound quality of Edison’s phonograph, he made the recordings and sent copies to the Smithsonian for storage – but since Bell didn’t want to risk his competitors having access to his work, he didn’t give the Smithsonian a device to play the recordings.

While it’s not known whether any of the recovered voices are those of Bell himself, the researchers say only three people worked in Bell’s Volta laboratory when the disks were made: Bell, his cousin Chichester Bell, and Charles Sumner Tainter.

The LBNL work is posted here, along with samples of the recovered recordings. ®

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