December 14, 2011 Library of Congress Helps Unlock Experimental Sound Recordings of Alexander Graham Bell

Contact: Donna Urschel (202) 707-1639

Nearly 10 years ago, the Library of Congress initiated a research collaboration with the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory to study the application of digital imaging to the extraction of sound from phonograph records and other grooved media. This non-invasive approach protects delicate or damaged historical items.

That collaboration has resulted in unlocking experimental sound recordings made more than 100 years ago by Alexander Graham Bell and associates.

The recordings, now available for listening by the public, can be found at

In the early 1880s, three inventors—Alexander Graham Bell, Chichester Bell and Charles Sumner Tainter, collectively making up the Volta Laboratory Associates—tried to record sound. In one experiment, on Nov. 17, 1884, they recorded the word “barometer” on a glass disc with a beam of light. This disc, along with nearly 200 other experimental recordings, was packed up for safekeeping and deposited at the Smithsonian Institution.

In the past year, Library of Congress Digital Conversion Specialist Peter Alyea; Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory Scientists Carl Haber and Earl Cornell; and National Museum of American History Curators Carlene Stephens and Shari Stout worked jointly to recover sound from those recordings. Using high-resolution scans made from the original Volta discs, they were able to hear the word “barometer.”

The team has successfully submitted six discs—all experimental recordings made by Volta—to the sound recovery process known as IRENE/3D (Image, Reconstruct, Erase Noise, Etc.), a process developed by Berkeley Lab in 2003-04 and installed at the Library of Congress in 2006 and in 2008.

The process creates a high-resolution digital map of the disc or cylinder. This map is then processed to remove evidence of wear or damage, such as scratches and skips. Finally, software calculates the motion of a stylus moving through the disc or cylinder’s grooves, reproducing the audio content and producing a standard digital sound file.

IRENE/3D research has been supported by the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the Library of Congress, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Archives and Records Administration, the Department of Energy, the University of California, the Andrew P. Mellon Foundation and the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation.

Founded in 1800, the Library of Congress is the nation’s oldest federal cultural institution and the largest library in the world, with more than 147 million items in various languages, disciplines and formats. The Library’s Preservation Directorate is the oldest and largest library preservation facility in the nation. The directorate’s mission is to ensure long-term, uninterrupted access to the Library's collections, either in original or reformatted form. It focuses on solving preservation problems facing collections of all types, whether traditional, audiovisual or digital. For more information, visit

Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory is a U.S. Department of Energy national laboratory and is located in Berkeley, Calif. It conducts unclassified scientific research and is managed by the University of California. Its website is The Berkeley/Library of Congress research website is

The National Museum of American History collects, preserves and displays American heritage in the areas of social, political, cultural, scientific and military history. To learn more about the museum, visit


PR 11-237
ISSN 0731-3527