"Hear my voice... Alexander Graham Bell." With these words, the inventor of the telephone speaks to us across more than a century, as new technology finally unlocks a fragile early recording.
The voice of Alexander Graham Bell was recorded on a wax and cardboard disc on 15 April 1885 in Washington DC. But the ageing disc can no longer withstand a needle to play it back, so Bell's voice remained a mystery -- until a new system was used to capture a high-resolution 3D image of the disc's grooves and translate them into an audio file.
The recording is one of hundreds of discs and cylinders created by Bell in his experiments with recording sound between 1880 and 1886, discs and cylinders he donated upon his death to the Smithsonian Institution.
Bell and his colleagues wanted to beat the advances in sound recording made by his rival Thomas Edison, and tested the recording properties of metal, wax, glass, paper, plaster, foil and cardboard. Sadly, we no longer know how they played back the recordings, and up until now experts couldn't play them back either.
But audioboffins from the Smithsonian, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Indiana University and the Library of Congress teamed up to digitally excavate the sound of Bell's voice reciting his name and lines of Shakespeare from the discs, like a bunch of audiophile Indiana Joneses.
Scottish-born Bell was the first to carry out a successful two-way conversation and first to patent a commercially practical product, although various people also pioneered or were instrumental in the development of the telephone. That includes Charles Grafton Page, Innocenzo Manzetti, Johann Philipp Reis and Antonio Meucci.
The innovation and hard work of those clever individuals culminates over a century later with the mobile phone in your pocket, with which we can not only speak to anyone in the world, but instantly discover any piece of knowledge, and look at pictures of cats. Alexander Graham Bell would approve, right?