What did Alexander Graham Bell’s voice sound like?

In his rivalry with Thomas Edison, Graham Bell made many attempts to record sound using media that ran the gamut from metal, glass, and foil to paper, plaster, and cardboard. Many of Bell’s discs survive, but the technologies used to record them are long forgotten.

Researchers and scientists from the National Museum of American History and the Library of Congress in Washington, the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California, and the University of Indiana have collaborated on a project to catalog and decipher the primative recordings, using high-resolution digital scans to convert them to audio files.

One wax-and-cardboard disc, recorded on April 15, 1885, contained a recording of the eclectic inventor himself:

“Hear my voice — Alexander Graham Bell.”

The Canadian writer and Bell biographer Charlotte Gray describes the find in the current issue of Smithsonian Magazine.

Gray once asked Dr. Mabel Bell Grosvenor, 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.

The tantalizingly brief recording reminds me of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s voice, but Gray offers a more pertinent association:

In that ringing declaration, I heard the clear diction of a man whose father, Alexander Melville Bell, had been a renowned elocution teacher (and perhaps the model for the imperious Prof. Henry Higgins, in George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion; Shaw acknowledged Bell in his preface to the play).

I heard, too, the deliberate enunciation of a devoted husband whose deaf wife, Mabel, was dependent on lip reading. And true to his granddaughter’s word, the intonation of the British Isles was unmistakable in Bell’s speech. The voice is vigorous and forthright—as was the inventor, at last speaking to us across the years.

H/T: Dave Johnson