This is a very cool story, reported by the Associated Press today:
In the latter part of the 19th century, Alexander Graham Bell and his contemporaries (Edison, Berliner, and others) were furiously racing to patent new sound capturing devices. Today, a sophisticated laboratory and a clutch of very smart people have figured out a way to bring some of those earliest recordings to life. The day when human sounds were first etched onto wax, copper and glass and available for playback was the day that humankind made a giant leap forward.
This story is reminiscent of the news a few years ago about the researchers that found a way to carefully unroll and read some of the biblical-era papyrus scrolls discovered in ancient Italian libraries. The scrolls lay there under metres of Vesuvian ash near Herculaneum for millennia, until archaeologists discovered them and other scientists learned how to unfurl them and use multi-spectral imaging to read them. It’s fascinating whenever the brush strokes of humanity are transported across eons, whether by the written word scrawled on plant fibre or by sound waves carved onto wax discs.
The intense competition among 19th century inventors has given us many of the things we take for granted today. Sound recordings, telecommunications, reliable incandescent lighting, traffic lights, pneumatic tires, photographic film, internal-combustion vehicle engines, video cameras, bicycles, even vacuum cleaners all first appeared on the scene. Some of these products were the result of applying science to real-world problems. But a lot of inventions came about by accident, by doing pure research and stumbling into unforeseen applications for new technology. This is why it’s so important to fund our universities, research parks, and organizations like the space program. You just never know where the next iPod or MRI machine is going to come from.
While somebody reciting Shakespeare or “Mary Had A Little Lamb” is unlikely to top the charts, it’s still very cool that people are now hearing a 130-year-old recording for the first time. But it would be even funnier if the first words out of the machine had been Bell saying “My humps, my humps, my lovely lady lumps…”