Recently, and for the first time in living memory, sound recordings made in 1881 at Alexander Graham Bell's Volta Laboratory Association have been heard aloud. The experimental phonographs made by the association where Bell worked alongside instrument-maker Charles Sumner Tainter and chemist Chichester A. Bell are thought to be the oldest preserved sound recordings intended for playback.
Dr. Patrick Feaster of Indiana University was able to identify the phonographs - small copper discs housed at the National Museum of American History - by comparing the unlabeled artifacts with notebooks documenting experiments kept at the Museum and the Library of Congress.
The copper discs are effectively negatives of wax originals, with an electrically-deposited layer of the metal effectively stamping a copy of the wax imprint for future duplication. "In this way a piece of music, for instance, can be recorded once," Tainter noted, "and any number of copies made from this original record, and the music reproduced from each of the copies."
Using optical scanning technology developed at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, sounds were extracted from some of the recordings in December, 2011 by Dr. Carl Haber. And what can be heard on the recordings?
In this recording made in October 1881, a high-toned is followed by a human voice counting from one to six, followed by another high-pitched tone. The high-pitched tones may well be a series of trilled-R's enunciated by one of the team, as the Volta group's notebooks document that this was a sound that recorded particularly well, and was used to bookend many of their recordings. The group's notebook's document earlier recordings from the same year:
July 4, 1881: "Several trilled R's - then - 'Mary had a little lamb, whose fleece was white as snow, and every where that Mary went the lamb was sure to go.'Several trilled R's - then - 'How is that for high' - trilled R's - and - one-two-three-four-five-six-seven-eight-nine."
July 9, 1881: "There was a girl named O'Brian / Whose feet were like those of Orion, / To the circus she would go, / To see the great show, / And scratch the left ear of the lion. Trilled R's. - 'How is that for high' more trilled R's."
Interestingly, Feaster writes that "how is that for high?" is 1881's answer to "how do you like them apples?". Later recordings that have been heard once again thanks to this work include glass-medium recordings dating from 1885 with recitations of Mary Had a Little Lamb, the famous Hamlet soliloquy, To be or not to be, recorded on green wax, and a man reading a story, adopting high-pitched voices for the children.
You can hear my personal favorite, in which a man's voice repeats the word barometer again and again, in the embedded video below: