Alexander Graham Bell’s voice discovered by Smithsonian Institute

Greg McNeil
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The Cape Breton Post

BADDECK — The recovery of Alexander Graham Bell’s voice from a recording held by the Smithsonian Institute is being celebrated at the site where many of his greatest inventions are now on display.

The Smithsonian Institute recently confirmed the discovery of the voice of Alexander Graham Bell on one of his recordings they had on file.

The discovery was announced in the May edition of the Smithsonian Magazine which details how Bell’s voice was extracted from a disc the famous inventor had used to record sound.

“The real advantage of this one is he said ‘Alexander Bell hear my voice.’ Nobody knew what Alexander Graham Bell sounded like,” said David Ebert, superintendent at the Alexander Graham Bell National Historic Site, about the recording.

“For a man that gave us all a voice, he didn’t have a voice, and I think now what we are really excited about for the first time is we know for sure, no two ways about it, that this is his voice.”

In the recent edition of the Smithsonian magazine a “dramatic application of digital technology” is said to have allowed researchers to recover Bell’s voice from a recording found in over 400 discs and cylinders he used for recording sound that were donated to the institution.

Previously, the Smithsonian had discovered the means to play many these recordings that included a recitation of a portion of the well-know soliloquy from William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” a trill of the tongue and someone stating numbers, starting with “one, two, three...”

The latest finding is the first instance where Bell identifies himself.

On the Smithsonian website you can hear the clip of Bell’s voice, which sounds a bit different from what Ebert expected.

“When you listen to a lot of older recordings sometimes the pitch sounds a little higher and, knowing his great-grandsons, they have fairly deep voices and I thought it might have been a little deeper. Whether it matches what I thought it did or it doesn’t, in the end it really doesn’t matter because now I don’t have to imagine any more.”

However, Bell’s dialect is consistent with what he expected.

“Just reading about him, his father was an elocution teacher and he was very insistent he didn’t speak with a brogue and it was just interesting to hear his voice. You try to picture in your mind what it sounds like and working with the descendants, the great-grandchildren, and you hear their voices and you think ‘well do some of them sound like your great-grandfather’ but really I think until you hear it, that is all just in your head and now for the first time it is there.”

Ebert said hearing the recording gives officials at his museum in Baddeck renewed hope they can unlock Bell’s voice from a number of similar recordings in their collection.

“We had some sound extracted from some of our cylinders but we didn’t know whether it was him talking or somebody else and the sound quality was very bad. This is a much higher quality of sound so I think the really exciting thing for us now is that maybe we can go through some of our collection and get more and more of his voice.”

The Bell museum has been in contact with the Smithsonian about getting some of the cylinders in their collection investigated.

“We have been in contact for quite a while, as well as the lab that did the research. Right now we are just happy to hear the voice and that they had success doing what they did. Whether or not we manage to work something out with them remains to be seen.”

If something can be worked out, he envisions making those recordings an important aspect of the museum in Baddeck.

“Who knows what is on our cylinders? Maybe someday he can tell part of his own story in his own voice.”

Go to the smithsonianmag.com to hear Bell’s voice under the history and archaeology section.

 

gmcneil@cbpost.com

Organizations: Smithsonian magazine, Smithsonian Institute, Alexander Graham Bell National Historic Site Bell museum

Geographic location: Cape Breton, Baddeck

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