Sound Visualization and Analysis in the Pre-Electronic Era

The 1857 Phonautograph of Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville

A phonautograph was a device for converting sound into visible traces. Usually this was accomplished by rigging up a needle or brush hair to a membrane and allowing the needle or hair to scratch smoked glass as the membrane vibrated.

Knight's American Mechanical Dictionary, in "Telephone", p.2514. (1880: Riverside Press, Cambridge), carries the following:

Articulate sounds are accompanied by the explusion of air from the mouth, which impulses vary in
quantity, pressure, and in the degree of suddennes with which they commence and terminate.
An instrument which will record these impulses has been termed by its inventor, Léon Scott, a phonautograph, or phonograph, and by Mr. Barlow a logograph; the pressure of air in speaking is directed against a membrane which vibrates and carries with it a delicate marker, which traces a line on a traveling ribbon. The excursions of the tracer are great or small from the base line, which represents the quiet membrane, according to the force of the impulse; and are prolonged according to the duration of the pressure, different articulate sounds varying greatly in their length as well as in intensity; farther, another great difference in them consists in the relative abruptness of the rising and falling inflections, which make curves of various shapes, of even or irregular shape. The smoothness or ruggedness of a sound has thus its own graphic character, independent both of its actual intensity and its length.

Phonodiek (Advanced Phonoautograph) Pictures of Musical Sounds

Shows four wave traces of flute, clarinet, oboe, saxophone tones made using the phonodiek c. 1916.  Dayton C. Miller photographed the wave forms of each of four instruments as they produced a 256 Hz note--C3, "middle" C.  Note how the phonodiek shows the differences between the tone quality of the four woodwinds.  The flute, which does not have a reed, produces a note with fewer overtones and a simpler wave form in the photograph.  (See Professor Dayton Miller's Research in Accoustics)

The 1862 Manometric Flame Apparatus of Karl Rudolph Koenig (1832 - 1901)

Manometric Flame Pictures of Articulated Sound

Manometric flame records of speech by Professors Nichols and Merritt, contemporaries of Dayton C. Miller at Case School of Applied Science.  (See Professor Dayton Miller's Research in Accoustics)

The My Fair Lady Connection


From the James Burke, "Connections" column entitled Highbrow Stuff  (Scientific American, May 1996).

"…in the 1850s… Isaac Pitman and his business partners…(were promoting)… a totali nu wei uv speling Inglish.  Alas, their efforts came to naught (or nought), and they switched instead to selling correspondence courses for a phonetically based writing technique we now know as shorthand.
"Pitman's original reason for attempting to turn English into WYSIWYG was because it isn't. Try pronouncing from parts American, Australian, New Zealander, Canadian or South African. (Give up? It's "Fanshaw.") Pitman believed that world peace would be more rapidly achieved if, by making words such as "Featherstonehaugh" simpler to read and pronounce, all those foreign "johnnies" could be more easily exposed to the "civilizing" influence of English.

"…The idea took root, although on a much grander scale than the single-minded Pitman might have hoped for, and in 1897 it flowered as the International Phonetic Alphabet. Which made every language easier to read and pronounce.
"Top gun in phonetics was Henry Sweet, after whom George Bernard Shaw modeled Professor Higgins in Pygmalion (a.k.a. My Fair Lady). As it happens, in the play, Higgins notes down the character Eliza's speech patterns using "visible speech," another set of symbols that had been developed long before by Alexander Graham Bell's father, an elocution teacher who had been a founding member of the British Phonetics Council. By the 1870s Bell, Jr., was busy visualizing sound, too, for the deaf students he was teaching in Boston.
"It was at this juncture that he came across a thing called a phonautograph, developed by the otherwise entirely forgotten E. Leon Scott de Martinville. The device was fairly primitive: a membrane vibrated in reaction to speech, and a bristle attached to the other side of the membrane traced wiggly marks on a moving piece of smoked glass.  With the phonautograph, Bell was able to show his pupils the correct "shape" of the sound they were trying to make, so that they could then compare their own attempts to imitate it.

"The whole wiggly-line phenomenon probably had its origin in an invention years earlier by a French physiologist by the name of Etienne J. Marey (Source-1 and Source-2), who fitted a membrane on a tiny drum (a "tambour") and placed this device wherever he wanted vital rhythms to be turned into graphs. When pressure of any kind depressed the membrane, the air in the tambour would be forced along a tube to push against a membrane fitted to another tambour at the far end of the tube. A stylus mounted on this second membrane would move in response and trace a line. With the tambour, still in general medical use as late as 1955, Marey could reduce virtually any kind of physiological vibrations to lines. He
called his squiggles 'the language of life.'…"
For more on Henry Sweet (Higgins), see the Preface to Pygmalion by Bernard Shaw, 1916.

Visualization Apparatus of Alexander Graham Bell
a. b.

Bell's phonautograph: a.)  Smoked-glass tracings of vowel sounds obtained with an AGB phonautograph. b.) AGB's human-ear phonautograph with which he experimented in Brantford.  (From A History of Engineering and Science in the Bell System: The Early Years (1875-1925), Bell Telephone Laboratories, Inc. (Larger picture phonautograph)
A model of Koenig manometer capsule (see above) which Bell displayed at the Centennial Exposition in 1876.  In this version, the diaphram is actuated by an electromagnetic coil through which voice currents flow.  In the unit used by Bell in 1874, the voice was directed to the diaphragm by a speaking tube.  (From A History of Engineering and Science in the Bell System: The Early Years (1875-1925), Bell Telephone Laboratories, Inc.)
For more see Alexander Graham Bell's Path to the Telephone which deals with sound visualization and the evolution of the concept of telephony.

This page was prepared and is maintained by R. Victor Jones
Comments to:

Last updated September 29, 1999