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Home > Sounds > Experimental Recordings From the Volta Laboratory

Experimental Recordings from the Volta Laboratory


A partnership between the Smithsonian Institution, the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and the Library of Congress has recently demonstrated that current technologies can play back experimental recordings made in Washington DC between 1881 and 1885 by the Volta Laboratory Associates.  With the support of a Lemelson Center Fellowship and the help of curator Carlene Stephens, I spent approximately ten weeks between October and December 2011 studying all of the experimental sound recordings preserved in the collections of the National Museum of American History.  By combining direct artifactual evidence with laboratory notebooks and other written sources, I’ve been piecing together a more comprehensive history of the Volta group’s work in recorded sound than has been available in the past, as well as identifying the place of many individual recordings within it.  Here’s what I’ve concluded so far about the six specific recordings played back as part of the recent pilot project.

   –  Patrick Feaster


Photo by Rich Strauss, Smithsonian

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Disc 1 – 312119 

Charles Sumner Tainter had begun experimenting with laterally modulated “zig-zag” disc recordings in May 1881, anticipating the gramophone disc of Emile Berliner—the direct ancestor of the twentieth century’s well-known 78s, 45s, and LPs.  After trying various materials, Tainter settled briefly on cutting original records in a mixture of wax and paraffin.  But his ambitions didn’t stop there.  In October, he and Chichester Bell decided to pursue the idea of electroplating recorded discs of this sort with copper and then using the negative electrotype copies to stamp out playable duplicates, a process they hoped could form the basis for a future commercial recording industry.

This artifact is the first electrotype negative Tainter made, between October 17 and 20.  Unfortunately, it didn’t turn out very well—the groove was well defined, but large chunks of content were missing near the disc’s outer edge.  Rather than trying to press positive copies from it, Tainter deposited it in a sealed package at the Smithsonian to document the accomplishment.

The audible content consists of trilled R’s, then the numbers “one, two, three, four, five, six,” and then more trilled R’s.  The voice is almost certainly Tainter’s.  Because they’re so distinctive and recorded so well, trilled R’s had been a staple of earlier experiments on the photophone (1880), and they also carried over into early test recordings like this one, enabling us to eavesdrop on the same experimental tradition that gave us Alexander Graham Bell’s famous “Mr. Watson—come here—I want to see you” of 1876.


Photo by Rich Strauss, Smithsonian

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Disc 2 – 287686

This recording of the test word “barometer” repeated several times is one of the few Volta Laboratory recordings that had already been heard in living memory before December 2011, thanks to an earlier playback effort by Floyd Harvey.  It was recorded on November 17, 1884, using the fourth of four recording techniques described in U. S. Patent 341,213: a wide stylus attached to a diaphragm caused variations in the height of a narrow slit through which light passed on its way to a rotating round glass photographic plate, exposing a spiral “saw-tooth” trace of varying width.  Like many of the Smithsonian’s photographic glass disc recordings, this one is signed by Harry G. Rogers, an associate who helped Sumner Tainter with phonographic experiments in this period.

Another recording made in the same way and on the same day—but not yet available for listening—features the word “phonography” instead of “barometer.”  The speaker in both cases is probably Rogers.  Earlier in 1884, Tainter and Rogers had begun making photographic glass disc recordings using modulated jets of bichromate of potash, but their experiments of October and November—including this disc—show them applying the same photographic approach to a more familiar diaphragm-and-stylus method of capturing sound vibrations from the air.


Photo by Rich Strauss, Smithsonian

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Disc 3 – 287654.11

This unlabeled photographic glass plate recording, made on March 11, 1885, contains two separate recorded bands separated by a gap.  The most easily recognizable content is “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” but what we’re hearing may not be a straightforward version of the rhyme: many listeners don’t hear “white” or “snow,” and I’ve left blank spaces in place of these words below to reflect the uncertainty.  Trilled R’s and the phrase “How is this (or that) for high!” were frequent Volta Laboratory test phrases, as we know from transcriptions found in the group’s notebooks.

Of special interest is the disappointed utterance at the end of the first segment—a detail that strikingly humanizes the work of these nineteenth-century innovators.  The officially endorsed transcription gives the utterance as “oh no,” but most listeners instead report hearing the expletive transcribed below.  The whole text should be regarded as tentative; the opening words are especially difficult to decipher.

This record has been inscribed by Mister Sumner Tainter and H. G. Rogers.  It’s the eleventh day of March, eighteen hundred and eighty five.  [Trilled R] How is this for high!  Mary had a little lamb, and its fleece was [...] as [...], and everywhere that Mary went — oh, fuck.

[Trilled R] Mary had a little lamb, and its fleece was [...] as [...], and wherever Mary went, the little lamb was sure to go.  How is this for high!  [Uncertain final syllables as machine glides to a halt]

Judging from its format, this recording must have been made using either the first or third of the four techniques described in U. S. Patent 341,213.  We know that the first technique, which involved shining a light through the nappe of a jet striking a glass plate, had been thoroughly worked out in early 1884, so experiments carried out in 1885 seem more likely to have involved the third technique, then still relatively untested: a stylus attached to a diaphragm caused variations in the width of a narrow slit through which light was passing, creating a trace of uniform width but variable density.  The speaker must have been either Tainter or Rogers, and I suspect it was Rogers, since the speaker applies the honorific Mister only to Tainter (if the transcription given above is correct).

The obvious question, of course, is what caused the interruption in mid-recording.  Perhaps the experimenters experienced a technical glitch.  However, David Giovannoni has an alternative theory based on peculiarities he’s detected in the wording of “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”


Photo by Rich Strauss, Smithsonian

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Disc 4 – 287920

This recording of Hamlet’s Soliloquy (“To be or not to be”) was made vertically in a green-colored wax composition on a brass backing.  Chichester Bell writes of using brass backings like this one in 1883-84 and mentions a plan to color wax for enhanced visibility in a notebook entry of March 1884, which may explain the bright green color seen here.  By early 1885, cardboard seems to have superseded brass and glass as a backing for experimental wax discs, so this recording probably dates from before then.  In any case, Chichester Bell was principally responsible for exploring wax disc recording throughout this period, and judging from his notes, he voiced most of his test recordings himself.


Photo by Rich Strauss, Smithsonian

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(part 1 | part 2 | part 3)

Disc 5 – 287700

This recording was cut vertically in Japan wax on a binder’s-board backing, probably by Chichester Bell.  The Volta group first adopted binder’s board as a material in mid-April 1885, and judging from similar specimens with dates, this recording is likely to have been made about that time.  Japan wax was notorious for cracking, and it lived up to its reputation in this case.  The spoken text appears to be business-related (“in order to cover costs,” “to Omaha and portions of...”), but little of it has yet been deciphered.


Photo by Rich Strauss, Smithsonian

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(part 1 | part 2)

Disc 6 –287701

This recording was cut in a wax composition on a binder’s-board backing and, like 287920 and 287700, is probably the work of Chichester Bell, dating from the spring or summer of 1885.  Physically, the disc is distinctive for having four notches around its edge, presumably to help secure it in place on the machine (specimens also exist with two and six notches).  The first segment appears to be a story, with a portion towards the end in falsetto, but only a few snippets have yet been made out (e.g., “if you would come”; “of lily white”).  The second segment concerns the history and progress of the Jackson Company, a cotton manufacturer of Nashua, New Hampshire.  Underlining indicates greater than usual uncertainty:

 —erected, and the mills went into operation in eighteen twenty six.  The enterprise did not prove a success, the company became embarrassed, and the property was sold to a new company, which was incorporated as the Jackson Company in eighteen hundred and thirty, the name being complimentary to Captain T. Jackson of Boston, who was a heavy owner in the newer company.  The old machinery was taken out, and new machinery for the manufacture of cotton cloth put in.  The company originally had two mills and a capacity of eleven thousand five hundred and eighty eight spindles, but now has three large mills possessing a large and [...] within a few years, five hundred and twelve looms, and twenty five thousand seven hundred and twenty spindles.  Its water power is eighteen feet fall and equal to one thousand horse-power and it holds eight hundred horse-power of steam.  Its water power has been increased forty three percent in the past twenty-five years as it carries [...] and [...].  This power is not [...].  On the contrary, [...] twenty-five years ago as it did then.  It did not, however, placed on the lower [...].  Last year the company doubled its capacity for [...] eleven [...] it was a long drop [...].  The capital of the company is six hundred thousand dollars.  It gives employment to eight hundred operatives.  Wages of pay are six per cent higher than in eighteen hundred and seventy nine, and believed to be the highest paid of all the cotton manufacturers in the—