Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Respect the past, create the new

Roughly translated from Japanese to English, the phrase onkochishin means “Respect the past, create the new.” For this particular blog topic that advice adheres well, as scientists have produced an audio file from a 128-year-old relic.

Alexander Graham Bell, the man who is credited with inventing the first practical telephone, does not have a voice. This is not to say the man was a mute--he was not--but given that he passed away nearly 91 years ago, nobody has actually heard his voice for nearly a century?

Until now.

The Smithsonian National Museum of American History, working in tandem with the Library of Congress and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, has identified a recording of Bell’s voice for the first time. It all began when a transcript that was signed and dated by Bell on April 15, 1885, was matched with a wax-on-binder-board disc that carries his initials with the same date. The Smithsonian sent the disc to go through the noninvasive optical sound recovery process  on equipment developed by the Berkeley Lab to it to be audibly matched to the transcript, and to produce an audio file.

How? Well that, of course, is the interesting part.

In this process, 3D optical metrology and surface profiling methods create a 3D digital map. The map is then processed to remove evidence of wear or damage, and software calculates the motion of a stylus moving through the disc’s grooves, reproducing the audio content into a digital file. An in-depth look at how this technology was developed and it utilized (how it is used) can be found here.

The group that produced the recording was also responsible for retrieving 10 seconds of the French folk song “Au Clair de la Lune,” from an 1860 recording of sound waves made as squiggles on a piece of paper.

So while it may not be the high-quality audio that folks today are used to today, it is only fitting that the man--who may or may not have invented the telephone--now has a voice.

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