Alexander Graham Bell worked with sound, tinkering with gadgets to help his wife, who was deaf, communicate. He is known as the inventor of the telephone. He gave the Smithsonian more than 400 discs and cylinders of his audio experiments, but until recently there was no way to play them back.
As a result, says curator Carlene Stephens of the National Museum of American History, the discs, ranging from 4 to 14 inches in diameter, remained “mute artifacts.” She began to wonder, she adds, “if we would ever know what was on them.”
Then, Stephens learned that physicist Carl Haber at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, California, had succeeded in extracting sound from early recordings made in Paris in 1860. He and his team created high-resolution optical scans converted by computer into an audio file.
Stephens contacted Haber. Early in 2011, Haber, his colleague physicist Earl Cornell and Peter Alyea, a digital conversion specialist at the Library of Congress, began analyzing the Volta Lab discs, unlocking sound inaccessible for more than a century. Muffled voices could be detected reciting Hamlet’s soliloquy, sequences of numbers and “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”
In autumn 2011, Patrick Feaster, an Indiana University sound-media historian, aided by Stephens, compiled an exhaustive inventory of notations on the discs and cylinders—many scratched on wax and all but illegible. Their scholarly detective work led to a tantalizing discovery. Documents indicated that one wax-and-cardboard disc, from April 15, 1885—a date now deciphered from a wax inscription—contained a recording of Bell speaking.
You can hear that recording and read more about it at Smithsonian. Link