During the years I spent in the company of Alexander Graham Bell, at work on his biography, I often wondered what the inventor of the world’s most important acoustical device—the telephone—might have sounded like.
Born in Scotland in 1847, Bell, at different periods of his life, lived in England, then Canada and, later, the Eastern Seaboard of the United States. His favorite refuge was Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, where he spent the summers from the mid-1880s on. In his day, 85 percent of the population there conversed in Gaelic. Did Bell speak with a Scottish burr? What was the pitch and depth of the voice with which he loved to belt out ballads and music hall songs?
Someone who knew that voice was his granddaughter, Mabel Grosvenor, a noted Washington, D.C. pediatrician who retired in 1966. In 2004, I met with Dr. Mabel, as she was known in the family, when she was 99 years old—clearheaded, dignified and a bit fierce. I inquired whether her grandfather had an accent. “He sounded,” she said firmly, “like you.” As a British-born immigrant to Canada, my accent is BBC English with a Canadian overlay: It made instant sense to me that I would share intonations and pronunciations with a man raised in Edinburgh who had resided in North America from the age of 23. When Dr. Mabel died in 2006, the last direct link with the inventor was gone.
Today, however, a dramatic application of digital technology has allowed researchers to recover Bell’s voice from a recording held by the Smithsonian—a breakthrough announced here for the first time. From the 1880s on, until his death in 1922, Bell gave an extensive collection of laboratory materials to the Smithsonian Institution, where he was a member of the Board of Regents. The donation included more than 400 discs and cylinders Bell used as he tried his hand at recording sound. The holdings also documented Bell’s research, should patent disputes arise similar to the protracted legal wrangling that attended the invention of the telephone.
Bell conducted his sound experiments between 1880 and 1886, collaborating with his cousin Chichester Bell and technician Charles Sumner Tainter. They worked at Bell’s Volta Laboratory, at 1221 Connecticut Avenue in Washington, originally established inside what had been a stable. In 1877, his great rival, Thomas Edison, had recorded sound on embossed foil; Bell was eager to improve the process. Some of Bell’s research on light and sound during this period anticipated fiber-optic communications.
This wax-and-cardboard disc from 1885 contains a recording of Bell’s voice.
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