A voice recording of Alexander Graham Bell’s father was recovered on this wax-coated drum, which was shipped to Berkeley Lab earlier this year for analysis.
Patents are the DNA of inventions, spawning entire new industries, businesses and economies. The giving away of patents by Toyota to spur development in hydrogen fuel, and by Tesla to help kickstart electric vehicle technology, are recent examples. A study by the Brookings Institution finds that the most productive periods in the United States occurred during the early 20th century and the Great Depression. The rate of patenting is nearly as high today as at any time in U.S. history. The most patents (per capita) came in 1916, 1915, 1885, 1932, 2010, 2011, 1931, 1883, 1890 and 1917. Here’s a look at some inventions from those years.
1883: Thomas Edison's Voltage Regulator
Superstar-inventor Thomas Edison has claimed more than 1,000 patents, including the phonograph, light bulb and this electronic device that was key to the development of radio, television and computer transistors.
Wikimedia Commons/Imperial War College
1885: Machine Gun
American-born British citizen Hiram Maxim invents a self-powered portable and fully-automatic machine gun that changes warfare. Its effects on society and the constitutional right to own it are still being debated today.
Thomas Kokta/Getty Images
1890: Stop Sign
William Phelps Eno proposed the first set of traffic rules and signs in an article in Rider and Driver, although the first actual sign didn’t appear until 1915.
1915: Stainless Steel Sink
The discovery of a new “rustless” steel by British metallurgist Harry Brearley is announced in the New York Times. Brearley applied for a patent that year, but American Elwood Haynes beat him to it. Its shiny surface, strength and corrosive resistant properties revolutionized modern industry from skyscrapers to kitchen utensils, trains and planes to medicine.
Jon Feingersh/Blend Images/Corbis
1916: Condenser Microphone
Edward C. Wente of New Jersey’s Bell Labs invents the electronic condenser microphone, which can be found today in recording, television, film and radio studios.
Jonathan Fife/Getty Images
1917: Modern Zipper
Gideon Sundback figures out that 10 fasteners per inch works much better than four and invents the modern zipper, or “separable fastener.” Used to close boots and tobacco pouches, the zipper doesn’t get into clothing for another 20 years.
1931: Stop-action Photography
Harold “Doc” Edgerton began playing around with strobe lighting while a grad student at MIT, developing both stop-action and ultra-high speed photography. His images of exploding bullets, running athletes and milk droplets became iconic photos. He went on to invent underwater time-lapse photography, atomic bomb timing and lights for copiers and flash photography.
Edwin Land invents the polarizer, which filters light waves and reduces glare. He goes on to invent instant photography, while the polarizer leads to sunglasses, camera filters and LCDs.
Paul Chinn/San Francisco Chronicle/Corbis
Apple debuted its iPad tablet in April 2010. Its history goes back to 1983, when Apple CEO Steve Jobs said he wanted to build a computer that users could carry around like a book, plug into telephone communications and link to libraries and other databases. It has been successful, kind of.
The quality is rough, like the way radios sound in old movies. But the voice is strong, and the note of barely contained joy in the solemn pronouncement is impossible to miss: “In witness whereof, hear my voice, Alexander Graham Bell.”
So intoned the inventor of the telephone in 1885.
He recorded his voice on a simple disc made from wax and paperboard. For years that disc lay silent and gathering dust, first at his Washington, D.C. laboratory, and then in the Smithsonian Museum’s archives.
But researchers have taken these old discs, too fragile to spin on a gramophone anymore, and digitally extracted the audio. Now, thanks to Berkeley Labs’ Carl Haber and Earl Cornell, as well as the Library of Congress and Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, Bell’s sound waves are back in the air, this time coming from computer speakers.
To achieve this, the researchers created a high-resolution digital map of the decrepit disc’s recording surface using a scanner that was first developed for particle physics experiments. From this map, the researchers could then tweak the data to minimize white noise and amplify the voices, and now you can listen to the result on YouTube.
"Identifying the voice of Alexander Graham Bell — the man who brought us everyone else's voice — is a major moment in the study of history," said Smithsonian museum director John Gray in a press release, pointing out that not only can researchers now precisely identify Bell's voice, but they can also use Bell's recordings to study speech patterns and affects of late nineteenth century America.
Aside from Bell himself, the researchers have identified several other people on the other recordings, including the inventor’s father Alexander Melville Bell.
The elder Bell is obviously thrilled with the technology that made his son famous. On one of the recordings he can be heard quoting Hamlet: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in our philosophy,” and offering a Monty Python-esque meditation on technological evolution: “I am a gramophone, and my mother was a phonograph.”
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