Category Archives: Sound

Bell’s heart on the line

Alexander Graham Bell in 1876 (Science Museum / Science and Society)

The 14th of February 1876 is a very significant date in the history of the telephone. On that day both Alexander Graham Bell and Elisha Gray filed papers with the US Patent Office for a working telephone. Following a dispute Bell’s patent was granted and published on the 7th of March 1876. Recently some historians have suggested that the dispute may have been resolved so quickly because Bell found a way to incorporate some of Gray’s ideas into his patent applications – but what could have driven Bell to such deception?

Only three months earlier Bell had been forced to make a difficult decision; should he choose to marry the love of his life, or continue work on his telephone? Bell’s day job was teaching deaf people to speak, and his interest in the production of sounds had stimulated an interest in electrical science. He had been researching a ‘harmonic telegraph’ and, since June 1875, investigating the telephone after an accidental discovery that enabled him to transmit and receive sounds. The father of Mabel Hubbard, one of Bell’s students, became interested in Bell’s harmonic telegraph and offered financial support which Bell accepted while also remaining committed to his teaching. Meanwhile Bell was becoming aware that his feelings for Mabel were turning from a teacher and pupil relationship towards those of love for her.

An exact replica of Bell's first telephone made in June 1875 by the same maker, Charles Wiliams Jr. of Boston (Science Museum)

Bell’s decision came in November 1875 when Mabel’s father, Gardiner Hubbard, asked Bell to give up teaching and other researches and devote all his time to the telegraph. If he did so, Hubbard would provide his living expenses enabling Bell to marry. Bell was too proud to accept a handout and rejected the offer, writing:

You are Mabel’s father and I will not urge you to give – nor will I accept it if offered – any pecuniary assistance other than that we agreed upon before my affection for Mabel was known … I shall certainly not relinquish my profession until I find something more profitable (which shall be difficult) nor until I have qualified others to work in the same field.

Fortunately for Bell the Hubbard family accepted the situation and allowed Mabel to make up her own mind. Two days later she and Bell became engaged.

Although Bell had not been prepared to accept Gardiner Hubbard’s money, he took the hint and looked again at the harmonic telegraph. Alongside this work he also continued research into the telephone against Gardiner Hubbard’s wishes, for he was convinced he could make it work. His work on the telephone gained some urgency when he became aware that he had a competitor in Elisha Gray, and furthermore because he still did not have enough money to marry Mabel. Bell’s submission of his patent papers on the 14 February, the same day as Gray submitted his, shows how close the race was. If Bell did indeed make illicit additions to his papers, perhaps it is because he was driven by his desire to marry Mabel Hubbard, which he finally did in July 1877.

Replica of Bell's 'Centennial' telephone transmitter of 1876 (Science Museum)


Noisy books

Recently, one of my colleagues sent me this link to a small synthesizer hidden in a book.

The synthesiser is a bought piece of equipment, but it’s designed to be hacked and modified by whoever uses it and this particular owner probably had a good reason to keep it hidden. Or he just thought it would be fun to stick a synth in an old book.

Either way, this quirky instrument instantly reminded me of one of the objects in our collection: the Shozyg, invented and built by electro-acoustic musician Hugh Davies.

Shozyg by Hugh Davies (© Science Museum, London)

It is one of many electronic instruments designed by Hugh and made with unconventional materials. He called these instruments Shozygs. This is one of the first Shozygs Hugh made and, like the tiny synthesiser, it is also hidden in a book. It is built into a volume of the New World Library Knowledge Encyclopaedia covering words starting with the letters Sho- to Zyg-, to be precise. It inspired Hugh to come up with the quirky name Shozyg for this instrument and those that were to follow.

I’m not an expert when it comes to identifying electronic parts, but a surprising number of them seem strangely familiar to me when I look at the Shozyg. Squares of foam that could have been part of a sofa, blades of a fretsaw, a spring that looks very similar to the kind you find inside some pens.

Like so many other instruments I came across when working on our exhibition about the history of electronic music, it doesn’t look much like an instrument at all.

Inside the Shozyg (© Science Museum, London)

This made me wonder, what would the Shozyg have sounded like? After a bit of digging around I found this video of Hugh playing the Shozyg before it became part of the Science Museum’s collection.

After Hugh passed away, many of his instruments were given to the Science Museum by his widow. Sound recordings of his work can be found in the British Library.

Some of the Hugh Davies Collection is currently on display in our exhibition Oramics to Electronica: Revealing Histories of Electronic Music. I particularly like his toolbox. It reminds us that so many electronic musicians, past and present, use their creativity not only to play existing instruments, but also to imagine new ones. Whether you call it hacking or making do with what you’ve got, it’s certainly inspiring.

Oramics to Electronica: Revealing Histories of Electronic Music can be found on the second floor of the Science Museum until December 2012.

Hugh Davies' toolbox (© Science Museum, London)

We have also sound-houses…

“We have also sound-houses, where we practise and demonstrate all sounds, and their generation. We have harmonies which you have not, of quarter-sounds, and lesser slides of sounds. Divers instruments of music likewise to you unknown, some sweeter than any you have, together with bells and rings that are dainty and sweet…”

Daphne Oram, founder of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, returned time and again to this quotation from Francis Bacon’s 17th century fantasy, The New Atlantis.

Now, with help from our friends at Goldsmiths College, we have been able to acquire the machine that was fed by these fantasies, “The Oramics Machine”, as she called it.

Input device for Oramics machine, before conservation (credit: Tim Boon)

Listen! That’s Daphne herself showing off just some of the sounds that this extraordinary beast could produce.  

Oramics Machine sound generator cabinet (credit: Science Museum / Science & Society)

People like to say that things are unique. This one really is - there was only ever one. Daphne operated it by painting on the ten synchronised strips of 35mm film that used to run across the top of the machine. Via light-dependent transistors this produced voltages that controlled the sound generators in the white cabinet. These too were based on hand-painted waveforms:

Two waveform slides hand-painted by Daphne Oram, from her Oramics Machine (Credit: Science Museum / Science & Society)

We have big plans for this unique machine.

We can report that it has been very carefully conserved by our experts and it’s going to go on display in the Museum later this year, surrounded by other gems from the Museum’s music and sound collections.

Nick Street has posted a video of the machine’s arrival in this country: Oramics by Nick Street. If you’d like to hear more about the project, keep an eye on this blog or e-mail us at:

A Regal Recording?

This week I learnt about a mystery object in the museum’s collections – the mystery is not what the object is, but what the object contains.

Wax cylinder recording for use with a graphophone, c. 1888. Science Museum inventory number 1929-607 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

What you can see is a wax coated cardboard tube, similar in size to a loo roll, with three bands in the surface of the wax. The tube was used with a graphophone, a device invented in the 1880s which recorded sound in a similar way to a vinyl record.

Reproduction graphophone made in 1987 by Mike Field (Science Museum / Science & Society)

The Museum acquired the cylinder in 1929, but without any way of playing it. The donor, a descendant of Samuel Morse, suggested that the cylinder had been used with a graphophone that was demonstrated to Queen Victoria in 1878, although he gave no clues as to what was recorded on the cylinder.

Research half a century later by technical writer Paul Tritton uncovered a letter that the Queen’s Private Secretary had written home to his wife in August 1888 about a machine that could reproduce sounds as often as you liked,

” Edwards whistled and I laughed – my ‘coachman’s laugh.’ “

He also wrote that

“H. M. [Her Majesty] spoke into it – but we told Mr Morse he must not go round the country reproducing the Queen’s words.”

These revelations spurred the museum to try and play the cylinder – with no idea what might be on it. With the help of the National Sound Archive, now the British Library Sound Archive, the cylinder was played for the first time in decades.

The three marked bands you can see on the cylinder are three separate recordings. The first recording was a man speaking and then whistling.

Whistled tune recorded on the graphophone, can you help us identify it?

One of the other recordings is unfortunately so damaged that it is impossible to make out any words. However, the second recording is about 20 seconds long, and although poor quality a few snatches can be heard of a well spoken lady saying, “Greetings… the answer must be… I have never forgotten.” Could this be the voice of Queen Victoria? With only circumstantial evidence to guide us we can’t say for sure, and perhaps we will never know.

Listen here and make your own mind up.

To find out more listen to Punt, P. I. on BBC Radio 4, 2nd October at 10.30am for an interview by Steve Punt with John Liffen, Curator of Communication.

FM: No Static At All

Our car is still fitted with a cassette player. Albums from long ago (Steely Dan and Beatles are current favourites) provide regular entertainment on journeys and are also enjoyed by the younger members of the family. I suppose we should have moved over to a CD player or something more exotic still, but somehow it seems unnecessary while the cassettes hold out (now 25 years old plus and still working fine!)

8-Track audio tape

8-Track tapes like this one dominated the American in-car market between the 1960s and 1980s but were then killed off by the improved audio quality of the handy cassette. (Science Museum/Science & Society)

I suppose the same can now be said of the car’s FM radio, given government Culture Minister Ed Vaizey’s announcement last week that the digital radio switch-over will happen, but only when a vast majority of listeners have voluntarily adopted digital radio over analogue.

He went on to highlight in-car radio as one of the biggest challenges facing the digital switch-over. This because of the difficulty in receiving digital signals while moving at speed. Once again, why bother to spend money on new technology when the old still works just fine.  He threw down the gauntlet to the car manufacturers to work towards some solutions.

But, although we choose perhaps to forget it, this tendency to delay novelty in favour of that which already works is by no means uncommon.

Smoothwell electric iron, 1935

Smoothwell electric iron, 1935 (Science Museum/Science & Society)

Take another domestic technology – the electric iron: it’s changed little over at least 70 years. Neither, by and large, has the basic form of the bicycle, now well into its second century of pedalling.

Rover 'Safety' Bicycle, 1885
Rover ‘Safety’ Bicycle, 1885 (Science Museum/Science & Society)

And at the other end of the cost spectrum – we still use rockets adapted from 1950s inter continental ballistic missiles to launch satellites and probes into space – they exist, we know lots about them, they do the job – why fix things that aren’t bust?

A Delta 2 Rocket launches the Kepler space observatory in 2009

A Delta 2 Rocket launches the Kepler space observatory in 2009 (NASA/Regina Mitchell-Ryall, Tom Farrar)

So novelty is no guarantee of successful innovation. Maybe Steely Dan had something to say about it in one of the songs we were listening to in the car: ‘FM – No Static at All.’

Sound Advice

I set out to the National Physical Laboratory the other day and on my way down Exhibition Road passed an elephant.

Elephant Family appeal, Exhibition Road

Elephant Family appeal, Exhibition Road, 2010 (Doug Millard)

Some 250 of these colourful models are being positioned across London to raise awareness and funds for the plight of their living cousins. A little later something niggled at the back of my mind – as though that elephant was trying to tell me something – but I thought no more of it and caught a train for Teddington and the NPL.

This, I’m ashamed to say, was my first visit to the Laboratory, also known as the National Measurement Institute, where, for over a century, physical standards have been measured, studied, applied or all three.

Scientists at the NPL, 1932

Scientists at the NPL, 1932 (Science Museum/Science & Society)

It was International Metrology Day, May 20th - exactly 135 years since seventeen nations agreed to the metre as the fundamental unit of length. The original Metre, made from platinum and iridium, is housed in Paris but the NPL has one of the carefully guarded official copies. These days a Metre is defined by the distance light travels in a vacuum during 1/299 792 458 of a second.

NPL also does a lot on sound - acoustics - and I was particularly impressed by the Laboratory’s anechoic chambers.

Science of Acoustics, 1850

Science of Acoustics, 1850 (Science Museum/Science & Society)

Now, while the Science Museum has all sorts of acoustics objects and pictures in its collections it has nothing like the NPL’s rather fearsome looking chambers where sounds produce no echo; here’s a link to one of the NPL’s anechoic chambers in action.

NPL Anechoic Chamber, 2010

NPL Anechoic Chamber, 2010 (Crown)

The NPL studies all manner of sounds, those the human ear can readily detect but also those at too high a frequency for us to hear – ultrasonic – or too low – infrasonic. Other animals are different, though: elephants, for example, have been shown to communicate using really low frequencies. Scientists suggest that this allows them to coordinate their own movements over distances of many kilometres. Maybe the Exhibition Road elephant was trying to tell me something earlier that day.