Sound Visualization and Analysis in the Pre-Electronic Era - Visualization


The 1857 Phonautograph of Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville

Scott de Martinville Phonautograph

The Concept


Bell - Blake Ear Phonautograph

"In preparing the ear for use as a phonautograph, the roof of the cavity of the middle ear is first cut away; through this opening a narrow-bladed knife may be introduced to divide the tendon on the tensor tympani muscle and the articulation of the incus with the stapes. By means of a hair-saw a section
of the middle ear is then made from before backward through the divided articulation. The section removes the inner wall of the middle ear cavity with the portion of the bone containing the internal ear and exposes the inner surface of the drum membrane, with the malleus and incus attached…"

"…In using a preparation of the ear as a phonautograph, a stylus made of a single fibre of wheat-straw is glued to the descending part of the small bones, parallel to the long axis of the bond. With this, tracings may be made upon a plate of smoked glass, sliding upon a glass bed at a right angle to the line of excision of the drum membrane, and moved by clock work or a falling weight, as in the apparatus mentioned by Professor Bell…"

(From a web site of Jonathan Sterne which no longer seems to be available)

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. Source

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.

An Advanced Phonoautograph: The 1909 Phonodiek of Dayton C. Miller source

"For the investigation of certain tone qualities…(Professor Miller)  required records of sound waves showing greater detail than had heretofore been obtained.  The result of many experiments was the development of an instrument which photographically records sound waves, and which in a modified form may be used to project such waves on a screen for public demonstration; this instrument has been named the "Phonodeik," meaning to show or exhibit sound. "

"The sensitive receiver of the phonodeik is a diaphragm, d, (figure below), of thin glass placed at the end of a resonator horn h; behind the diaphragm is a minute steel spindle mounted in jeweled bearings, to which is attached a tiny mirror m; one part of the spindle is fashioned ino a small pulley; a few silk fibers, or a platinum wire 0.0005 inch in diameter, is attached to the center of the diaphragm and being wrapped once around the pulley is fastened to a spring tension piece."

"Light from a pinhole is focused by a lens and reflected by the mirror to a moving film f  in a special camera. If the diaphragm moves under the action of a sound wave, the mirror is rotated by an amound proportional to the motion, and the spot of light traces the record of the sound wave on the film.

"In the instrument made for photography… the usual displacement of the diaphragm for sounds of ordinary loudness is about half a thousandth of an inch, resulting in an extreme motion of one thousandth of an inch, which is magnified 2500 times on the photograph by the mirror and light ray, giving a record 2 1/2 inches wide; the film commonly employed is 5 inches wide, and the record is sometimes wider than this. The extreme movement of the diaphragm of a thousandth of an inch must include all the small variations of motion corresponding to the fine details of the wave form which represent musical quality."

 Phonodiek 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
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Last updated November 2, 2005