Photograph by Jose Luis Magana, AP

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Physicist Carl Haber shows recordings by Alexander Graham Bell at Volta Laboratory during a news conference at the Library of Congress in Washington in December 2011.

Photograph by Jose Luis Magana, AP

How Genius Carl Haber Restores Long-Lost Sounds

Some historic sounds were lost—until the physicist began digitally restoring them.

"This year's class of MacArthur Fellows is an extraordinary group of individuals who collectively reflect the breadth and depth of American creativity," said Cecilia Conrad, vice president of the MacArthur Fellows program, in a press release announcing the 2013 recipients on Wednesday. "Their stories should inspire."

Over the next few days, we will profile some of these innovative people in this series, "Interview With a Genius."

Carl Haber was the first person to hear Alexander Graham Bell's restored voice, speaking from 1885.

Haber, a physicist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, is a recipient of a 2013 MacArthur "genius grant."

Several years ago, he heard an NPR report about the delicate condition of historic sound recordings at the Library of Congress. That report inspired him to look into restoration of these audio artifacts.

"I'm really trained to think about how to measure things," Haber explained. "We were already using a suite of optical methods to measure things in our lab. I just saw a connection between [that] and what I perceived to be a problem. I just thought it would be a good thing."

Getting Groovy

Haber's work uses physics, photography, and image processing to mathematically extract information from recordings.

"We focus on sound recordings which are mechanical, so there's a groove in it," he explained. "We take a picture of these things – a thousand times more magnified than what you're getting from normal photography."

These detailed photographs allow researchers to study the minute groove patterns inlaid within the disks, and then emulate sound patterns with digital equipment.

"There's so much information on these images that we can calculate how a needle would move through these images through digital analysis."

The result? Sounds are preserved as they were recorded, with no damage done to the original disk.

"This Recording Was Made by Alexander Graham Bell"

The Alexander Graham Bell recording was made on a disk very different from any of today's technical gadgets.

But it was high tech for the times: The Alexander Graham Bell Laboratory, also known as the Volta Laboratory, was doing innovative research in the use of sound technology.

"The disk was cut out of binder board"—the material that hardcover books are wrapped in—"and coated in wax," Haber explained. "The recording was on the wax. The grooves were cut into the surface of the wax."

Haber used a three-dimensional photographic technique to accurately capture the grooves in the wax.

Bell, a regent of the Smithsonian, left over 200 sound artifacts to the Smithsonian and the Library of Congress when he died in 1922.

The disks and related recordings were left untouched—until last year, when Haber was contacted about a potential Bell recording.

Haber went to work bringing Bell's voice to life and was able to hear the recording, made in 1885 in Washington, D.C. (Bell was a founding member of the National Geographic Society in Washington a few years later, in 1888.)

"It's a rather clearly heard voice," Haber said. "He even says, 'This recording was made by Alexander Graham Bell.' It's over four minutes long. It's him counting integers and numbers"—which made sense, since Bell envisioned sound recording as a way to keep audio business records.

Haber remembers taking the data and going back to his office to analyze it.

"And then, I heard it," he said. "I emailed my colleagues and said, 'It's him.'"

The "Greater Goal" of Sound Restoration

Reproducing Alexander Graham Bell's voice has brought a kind of fame for Haber, but he aims to use the genius grant to restore less-famous lost voices. One of his goals is to restore Native American recordings from the early 20th century. He's also open to going international with his work: He's been contacted by representatives from the Middle East and Slavic regions to restore delicate audio recordings.

Giving voice to those who are otherwise stifled because of time and history is Haber's overarching objective.

"There's thousands of recordings," Haber said. "Cultures are going extinct; some have vanished.

"Working with those types of collections—that's the greater goal of this. To get access and to share research. It's a societal good."

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