The recordings date back to the 1880s. Bell had moved from Boston, Massachusetts, to Washington after obtaining a patent on March 10, 1876, for his invention of the telephone, which occurred when his employee Thomas Watson heard him shouting over a wire in the next room. He joined a growing group of scientists who made the nation's capital a hotbed for innovations.
During this time, Bell sent the first wireless telephone message on a beam of light from the roof of a downtown Washington building, a forerunner to modern fiber optics. He and other inventors also were scrambling to record sound on anything they could find, including glass, rubber and metal. One early sound record looks like a smashed soup can.
Inventors at the time were in intense competition. Bell, Emile Berliner and Thomas Edison, who invented the phonograph to record sound on tin foil in 1877, each left objects and documentation with the Smithsonian to help prove their innovations were first.
Bell went so far as to seal some devices in tin boxes for safekeeping at the Smithsonian. Edison's earliest recordings are thought to have been lost.
"This stuff makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck," said curator Carlene Stephens, of the National Museum of American History, before Bell's recordings were played Tuesday. "It's the past speaking directly to us in a way we haven't heard before."