Sonic Wonders and the Wonder of Sound

On Tuesday evening, I found myself listening to the sounds of burping sand dunes in the Mojave Desert. This was unusual for me. Earlier in the day, I had attended the Victorian Popular Fiction Association’s Conference in Senate House Library, which is my more usual academic stomping ground. From panels dominated by young women fascinated by gender stereotypes in penny dreadfuls, animal imagery in Dickens, and representations of class in Victorian fiction, I braved the rush hour and crossed town in time to hear Trevor Cox’s lecture, hosted by the Audio Engineering Society and the Institute of Acoustics, on the science behind his latest book, Sonic Wonderland. Here I joined the ranks of largely male sound engineers and acousticians eager to debate the various virtues and principles of sonic phenomena across the globe. An ardent believer in interdisciplinarity, and a researcher in nineteenth-century sound studies, I nevertheless found myself nervously wondering whether I would feel lost in a sea of charts, frequencies, and decibels; whether I could even tell the difference between sonic feedback and free jazz.

However, as Professor Cox regaled us with his tales of saxophone playing in the Inchindown Oil Tanks, a musical road in California that sings the William Tell Overture, and an abandoned spy station in Teufelsberg whose near-spherical radome allowed him to whisper into his own ear, I was struck anew by the rumbles, roars, groans, moans, cracks, thwacks, pops, rustles, and rings that endlessly fill the air around us with sounds – sounds we can hear and sounds we cannot. There is truly, as George Eliot famously wrote in 1874, a ‘roar on the other side of silence’, and we can only begin to hear and understand it, by learning to become better listeners. There were, I realised, definite continuities between the figures I have been researching who, around 200 years ago, were feeling their way blindfolded (as it were) through a strange and disorienting new world of sound and the amazing work that audio engineers are doing today.

When, in the late eighteenth century, the German physicist and musician Ernst Chladni drew a bow over a piece of metal covered in sand, he revealed that various modes of vibration caused the sand to concentrate along nodal lines, forming beautiful geometrical patterns that could be seen with the naked eye and preserved in drawings. Sound suddenly became a material phenomenon; it was now known to travel in waves and it generated wonder and aesthetic pleasure. The nineteenth century was filled with new devices to create, filter, represent, and display sound. In 1807, for example, Thomas Young used a stylus to produce tracings of the vibrations of sound-producing objects such as tuning forks, and Charles Wheatstone’s Kaleidophone, demonstrated in 1825, consisted of a series of glass beads fixed to the ends of circular rods which, when set in motion, produced a series of spectacular patterns in regular forms.


Chladni Figures


Nodal Lines

Illustration of Chladni patterns from Chladni's Die Akustic (1802)

They may seem basic now, but these were the sonic wonders of the nineteenth century, and they led to the invention of the telegraph, the phonograph, and the telephone in that same period. Other sound devices were to fare less well, like the psychograph, a machine designed to write at the dictation of spirits, or Alexander Graham Bell’s ear phonautograph, which was built from a dead human’s ear that had been pickled in spirits and attached to a recording stylus. But, modern or Victorian, the bizarre, the quirky, the fun, and the out and out strange all have their place in the sonic landscape – if we only listen closely enough.


Ear Phonautograph

 Ear Phonoautograph Tracings on Smoked Glass

--Melissa Dickson