How Do You Play a 19th-Century Record?

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Curators and scientists worked together to recover the audio recorded on Alexander Graham Bell's earliest records, recorded at his Washington, D.C., Volta Laboratory. Carlene Stephens, a curator of the National Museum of American History, sought out scientists at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, California, who had figured out how to play back sound from a 1860 phonautograph recording. They worked with the Smithsonian to recover the sound from Bell's recordings by using a 3D camera to create depth images of the surface of the record. With audio software to recreate the waveforms, we can now listen to recordings from the 1880s. This short documentary was produced by Ryan Reed for Smithsonian magazine, and you can read more about the history and listen to more audio files on the magazine's site.

Carl Haber, who demonstrates the technology in the documentary, comments on the amazing history of the project in an article on Smithsonian's blog:

From 1881 to 1885, they were recording sound mechanically. They recorded sound magnetically. They recorded sound optically, with light. They tried to reproduce sound with mechanical tools, also with jets of air and liquid. It was an explosion of ideas that they tried ... There are periods of time when a certain group of people end up in a certain place and a lot of music gets created, or art — Paris in the 1920s and ’30s. There are these magic moments, and I think that historians and scholars of technology and invention are viewing Washington in the 1880s as being one of those moments.

For more videos from Smithsonian Magazine, visit the YouTube channel

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Kasia Cieplak-Mayr von Baldegg is the executive producer for video at The AtlanticMore

Cieplak-Mayr von Baldegg's work in media spans documentary television, advertising, and print. As a producer in the Viewer Created Content division of Al Gore's Current TV, she acquired and produced short documentaries by independent filmmakers around the world. Post-Current, she worked as a producer and strategist at Urgent Content, developing consumer-created and branded nonfiction campaigns for clients including Cisco, Ford, and GOOD Magazine. She studied filmmaking and digital media at Harvard University, where she was co-creator and editor in chief of H BOMB Magazine.

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