Seen above is a green disc, wax on brass, with an early recording of Hamlet’s “To be or not to be…” soliloquy, that likely hasn’t been heard in over 125 years. Created by Alexander Graham Bell’s Volta Laboratory in the late 19th Century and sent to the Smithsonian for archiving as they were created, the paranoid Bell failed to provide a playback mechanism for these discs, for fear that his competitors would appropriate his innovations.
Researchers at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratories are working on recovering these early audio recordings with a system called IRENE/3D that creates 3D optical scans of the old record-like discs:
Using methods derived from our work on instrumentation for particle physics we have investigated the problem of audio reconstruction from mechanical recordings. The idea was to acquire digital maps of the surface of the media, without contact, and then apply image analysis methods to recover the audio data and reduce noise.
The nifty thing about this form of hands-off scanning is that it can accommodate many types of otherwise mechanically incompatible media, from discs made of metal or glass to wax cylinders (quick, someone set this up to scan the Lazarus bowl!!). The 18-second snippet of Hamlet audio from the green disc above (maybe the voice of Bell himself?) has been posted on YouTube, or you can download more examples from the project in WAV and MP3 format.