We Heard Dr. Alexander Graham Bell Speak!

 Speaking from the Volta Bureau Autumn banner

Emilio Alonso-Mendoza summerDear Alexander Graham Bell Community,

The staff of the Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing recently made a field trip into the past - all the way to the 1880s! Dr. Alexander Graham Bell gave much of his later life to one of today's most prominent American organizations, the Smithsonian Institution. He served as one of the very first Regents for the Smithsonian, in its earliest years. On January 31, the Smithsonian Museum of American History closed their latest exhibit on Dr. Bell. It focused on the recovery of his work in sound recordings made with various materials. It began on January 26, 2015 and ran for a full year. The staff and I made the trip from Georgetown to experience all the exhibit had to offer.

I was greeted at the Smithsonian by Carlene Stephens. She has been the lead curator working on the exhibit during its time at the museum. Carlene was gracious in welcoming us and gave us a detailed tour of the display, going over the early history of Dr. Bell's first laboratory and the work he accomplished there with his two assistants, Chichester Bell (Dr. Bell's cousin) and Charles Sumner Tainter. You can read Carlene's perspectives on Dr. Bell's exhibit and about his early days in Washington here: Part 1; Part 2. 

AG Bell staff in front of exhibit at the Smithsonian Museum of American History.
AG Bell staff in front of opening to "Hear My Voice"
exhibit at the Smithsonian Museum of American History.

Dr. Bell's first Washington, D.C. laboratory was located at 1221 Connecticut Avenue Northwest, and it was at this first Volta Laboratory that much of the work for his sound recordings was completed. The primary tasks put to his assistants were to work with materials to find the best mode of recording sound as well as playing it back. The items on display included the various materials used for these experiments, including a glass disc with photographic emulsion to establish that photographic processes could record sound. Another disc on display used Binders board coated with wax, a similar concept to modern vinyl record technology.

In many laboratory experiments, Dr. Bell and his assistants would experiment extensively with recording and transmitting sound. They experimented with materials for recording, as well as materials to transmit sound over distance. Their experiments included materials which ranged from conventional copper wire to tests of abstract ideas for transmitting sound with light - which worked! 

Wall banner at the exhibit features Dr. Bell, Chichester Bell and Charles Sumner Tainter.
Wall banner at the "Hear My Voice" exhibit features
Dr. Bell, Chichester Bell and Charles Sumner Tainter.

The critical pieces of history featured at this exhibit, however, were the recovered audio recordings from preserved discs of Dr. Bell's voice. Carlene was particularly animated during this portion of the tour, as the technology used to save the audio discs was incredibly fascinating.

A physicist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Carl Haber, had a mission to save hundreds of thousands of endangered sound recordings, as time was eroding their audio fidelity. He developed an impressive imaging tool called IRENE. The objective of IRENE's technology is to recover the preserved sound recordings and render the audio into modern file formats. IRENE stands for Image, Reconstruct, Erase Noise, Etc. It summarizes the process of the technology - IRENE images the recording surface and then translates it into a digital topographical map that can be used to create a copy of how the recording would have originally sounded. IRENE essentially functions as a very sophisticated vinyl record piracy machine!


Recovered audio recordings from preserved discs of Dr. Bell's voice in the exhibit.
Recovered audio recordings from preserved discs of 
Dr. Bell's voice in the "Hear My Voice" exhibit.

After developing IRENE, Haber worked with Earl Cornell at the Berkley Laboratory and Peter Alyea from the Library of Congress to recover and restore the audio recordings of Dr. Bell's voice. The results of his work can be heard here. The recovered recording in this video, one of several available to visitors at the exhibit, is from Dr. Bell's April 15, 1885 experiment at the first Volta Laboratory. A report on the recovery of the disc from Haber can be read here.

AG Bell is working to incorporate the Smithsonian's displays into the Volta Bureau's lobby to update AG Bell's current exhibits and showcase new technology. I encourage everyone to visit us in Washington, D.C. to view the new Volta Bureau displays. It is a special opportunity to be able to share in the legacy of Dr. Bell's life and work, and we hope that you will join us in supporting this historical presentation.

Until next week,


Emilio Alonso-Mendoza
[email protected]


The innovation point is the pivotal moment when talented and motivated people seek the opportunity to act on their ideas and dreams.
- W. Arthur Porter