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New technology gives voice to the past

Bell's experimental records sat untouched at Smithsonian for over a century.

WASHINGTON - Early sound recordings by Alexander Graham Bell that were packed away at the Smithsonian Institution for more than a century were played publicly for the first time Tuesday using new technology that reads the sound with light and a 3D camera.

"To be, or not to be," a man's voice can be heard saying in one recording, the speaker reciting a portion of Hamlet's Soliloquy as a green wax disc crackles to life from computer speakers. Another recording on a copper negative disc that was played back at the Library of Congress reveals a trill of the tongue and someone reciting the numbers 1-2-3-4-5-6.

The recordings date to the 1880s. Bell had moved from Boston to Washington after inventing the telephone and joined a growing group of scientists who made the nation's capital a hotbed for innovations.

During this time, Bell sent the first wireless telephone message on a beam of light from the roof of a downtown building. He and other inventors also were scrambling to record sound on anything they could find. One early sound record looks like a smashed soup can.

Bell worked with his cousin Chichester Bell and Charles Sumner Tainter at a lab in Washington in the early 1880s. Their group was known as Volta Laboratory Associates.

Inventors were in intense competition. Bell, Emile Berliner, and Thomas Edison, who invented the phonograph to record sound on tin foil in 1877, each provided objects and documentation to the Smithsonian to help prove their innovations could record on rubber, glass, brass, and other materials. Bell went so far as to seal some of his devices in tin boxes for safekeeping at the Smithsonian. Some of Edison's earliest recordings are thought to be lost.

"This stuff makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck," said curator Carlene Stephens at the National Museum of American History before Bell's recordings were played. "It's the past speaking directly to us in a way we haven't heard before."

On Nov. 17, 1884, Bell's lab recorded the word barometer on a glass disc with a beam of light. This disc and about 200 other experimental records were never played again after being packed away and given to the Smithsonian.

The Library of Congress worked with the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley, to offer a first listening session of these early recordings Tuesday.

Scientists have spent the last 10 years and about $1 million to develop the technology to create high-resolution digital scans of the sound discs.