The Fishy Phonograph of Professor Kollicher

Have you heard of Professor Kollicher (or Kollicker, or Koellecker), the fish expert who took a phonograph into the ocean depths in the 1890s and 1900s to record the sounds made by sharks, eels, and other marine creatures?  Here, gathered together for what I believe is the first time, are several accounts of his underwater exploits, published in various venues—mostly newspapers—between 1894 and 1908.  Let’s dive right into the earliest of them:kollicher-1894

DO FISH TALK?  Remarkable Experiences of Prof. Kollicher—A Fish Conversation Under Water.

Recently, while sitting on the sands of Santa Catalina Island, off the Southern California coast, I was introduced to Prof. Kollicher. We had conversed but a few minutes when he took from his pocket several strange-looking objects that might have been patent clothes-pins. “I am a disciple of Garner,” he said. “What he proposed to do with the gorilla I am going to do with the sculpin and the shark. As an example,” here he held out the clothes-pin-like objects, “here is an imitation fish tone for remorse, and here one for joy, taken by me from life. Whenever I caught a fish that uttered a sound I held its head up to a phonograph, and so caught the sound; then I had these vocal imitations made. I can sit on the rocks here and attract any fish by my talking machines; but I wish to test the thing under water.

“You see,” continued the professor, “that object on the dock,” pointing to what I had supposed was a wooden crate; “well, that is a cage of iron which I am going to enter and have lowered to the bottom of the bay here. It is equipped with all the modern appliances and the latest scientific discoveries. My object,” and the professor’s rhinestone gleamed and scintillated in his enthusiasm, “is to discover and translate the language of fishes.”

I grasped the idea at once; there was only one point. “Where do I come in?” I asked.

“Oh, in the tank, certainly,” replied the professor, evidently misunderstanding me. “I invite you to join me; join me in the honor of the discovery.”

I strongly thought that the professor wished the honor of drowning with me, but said nothing. I learned that the local press had not gotten wind of it, so I finally accepted.

The average reader of these lines will perhaps imagine that the professor had gone mad, and that the writer was perhaps in a like condition; but not so. It so happened, as the professor had remarked, that I had made many researches into the language of fishes, and, if I had not talked with them, had listened to sounds uttered by no less than twenty different kinds—this, of course, out of water. If, now, the same sounds could be distinguished under water, and could be imitated, it could be proved that fishes talked and had a language.

Among the fishes I had listened to was the haemulon of Mexico. Holding it in my hand, it uttered a series of grunts or guttural sounds, which so appealed to me at the time that I released the fish. The dogfish of the East utters a barking croak. The drumfish of New Jersey utters a loud sound. The catfishes utter sounds as do the little sea-horses (hippocampus) a low sound not unpleasant. The chub I have heard croak. The gizzard-shad makes a whirring sound; the chub-sucker utters a single sharp note while the catfish (Amiurus lynx) hums and may be called the singer among fishes. I had listened to the note of the sculpin that haunts the shores of Catalina. The murray, one of the sea-eels, produces a singular metallic musical sound. I had not only heard these sounds, but knew how they were produced. In the zeus, a murmuring fish, the sound comes from the swimming bladder, that has a diaphragm and muscles for opening and closing it. The catfishes and eels produce their notes by forcing air from the swimming-bladder into the œsophagus. In the sea-horse the vibrations of certain voluntary muscles produce the sound, and so on. When it is remembered that the air-bladder of fishes is homologous to the lungs of the higher animals and the pneumatic duct, may be compared to the trachea of birds and other higher animals, we see there is some resemblance between sounds produced by fishes and those of other animals.

The next thing was to hear them in their native element, and as we know fishes have ears they certainly must be able to emit sounds. So it will be seen that the professor had fair grounds for believing that he was on the threshold of great discoveries, and might accomplish his ambition by conversing with a fish.

Matters were conducted with secrecy. The steamer Falcon, which had a large boom and tackle, was generously offered by the Wilmington Transportation Company, and late one afternoon the attempt was made. A place called Pebble Beach was selected as famous for its fish and their variety, and the Falcon came to anchor in about sixty feet of water. The tank was of iron, a basket-like structure, open on all sides, like a crate, with two revolving seats or stools in the center. It was, as the professor said, a protection against sharks, yet admitted fish of large size. It was provided with all the remarkable inventions used by Panici at the Naples Aquarium, a submarine camera, a phonograph with an enormous receiver, and various other objects, as mirrors, bait-boxes, knives, spears, &c. Finally, all was ready. We entered our armors, the head-pieces were screwed on, the telephone attachment between us connected, and at the word the professor who wished, as the invention was his, the honor of going down first, entered, and the cage was lowered out of sight. In just five minutes he telephoned me that he had reached the bottom and the cage was resting on a huge rock in a most advantageous position. I then descended. It was my first experience in a diver’s suit, and I was surprised at the clearness of the water, and the only inconvenience was a ringing in my ears. I landed by the side of the cage, opened the iron door, and took my seat by Kollicher.

The situation was so novel that for a few moments I sat in bewildered contemplation of the scene. I could see for twenty or thirty feet on either side distinctly, and above us every object could be plainly distinguished—the delicate tracery of the jelly fish, the fairy-like form of the velella, while small fishes seemed poised above us in the watery atmosphere. The rock upon which we rested was a huge block that stood ten feet from the bottom, and from it to the shore was a gradual rise for 300 feet over rocks and pebbles covered with short weeds. I was recalled to my senses by a word in my ear from the professor, and by simply turning my head in the helmet I opened the connection and conversed with my confrere. He had attached the phonograph with a broad receiver, and now arranged a number of mirrors, and in a few moments had the camera on its stand and the electric light bulb by which pictures were to be taken in place. He then handed me a slate for recording observations, and opening a box, scattered a lot of crawfish about. As the bait settled around us we sat in excited expectation and remained perfectly quiet.

Our advent had undoubtedly alarmed the frequenters of the rock, but they soon began to collect. A big whitefish rose over the edge of the rock, gazed at us with its big eyes for a moment, then took a piece of the bait. This gave others courage, and soon a number of these fishes surrounded the cage. Then came a big striped fellow, yellow and black, that must have weighed ten pounds, who swam about with the others with an air of superiority. I recognized the fish as the redfish, and the professor telephoned me that he was about to try his first experiment with the ingenious contrivances for imitating the sounds of fishes.

The redfish was supposed to be an ally of the drumfish, and Kollicher selected a wooden instrument that uttered when manipulated a groaning murmur; this he handed to me. By carefully distributing the bait, the big fish and several others rose higher and higher, and were soon opposite our faces, when the professor turned the great receiver directly at the fish, while I turned the lever of the talking machine. We could not hear, of course, whether the sound was discernible, and it was an anxious moment; but suddenly we noticed the fishes start, roll up their eyes in a mournful way, and turn away; then one returned.

“Keep it up,” shouted the professor, and I could hear the ecstasy in his voice as I turned the lever again. The fishes now approached the receiver, which was a mirror, and they saw what they supposed were fishes of their kind, and then we saw their mouths open and numerous bubbles ascend to the surface.

“We have it,” said my companion; “they are replying.” But to me the rolling of the eyes suggested anguish.

We could not test the phonograph into which the fish had “spoken” until we ascended. The fish continued to come, and I now noticed that many strange forms were climbing the rock and the bars of the cage, attracted by the meat of a dozen crawfish. Great crabs crawled slowly along. The whips of crag-fish waved to and fro, and the tentacles of a big octopus came insinuatingly up and around the bars, followed by the uncanny body. A long, slender head now protruded through the bars, and my companion called to me that it was an eel, and to try the machine that imitated the sound of the eel. I did so, and the snake-like fish stopped at once, raised itself a foot or more, looked directly at the receiver, and as it heard the sounds rolled its eyes with a melancholy expression and struck the glass violently. I had evidently said something that displeased the fish, and its reply would undoubtedly be found in the phonograph. Half a dozen different sounders were tried, and all attracted the attention of the fishes. Some were repelled and darted away; others looked amazed and tried to enter the receiver, while many more were evidently astonished and remained poised before it; but all rolled their eyes as if in despair.

While we were watching this and other manifestations the fish suddenly disappeared, and a huge hammerhead shark sailed slowly around us. I seized the imitation of the Eastern dogfish—a small shark—and sounded it. The big fish darted ahead as if struck, then turned and circled around, watching us arranging the camera. I turned on the light and snapped the shutter just as the brute passed. Then the small fry, from the flying fish up, came back, and suddenly a jew-fish. The nearest imitation we had to a jew-fish was a long guttural croak, which stopped the monster in its tracks, and as long as I played the instrument it moved to and fro, and on one of its passages the professor photographed it. If ever a fish wept this one did.

We had now been down three hours, and, having remained as quiet as possible, our cage had become covered with strange creatures. Moreover, we were anxious to test the phonograph, so we called to the men at the pumps above to lift.

The readers’ curiosity is naturally excited to know what the phonograph revealed of piscatorial talk. Here my narrative must prove a disappointment. The instrument returned the sounds with perfect distinctness, and Prof. Kollicher was able to translate them clearly. Unfortunately, however, they all related to family matters, which he assured me it would be a breach of confidence for him to repeat. We are going to take the instrument to the Farallones, which, from their vicinity to San Francisco, are likely to be visited by fish of a more versatile type.[1]

The above piece appeared on the front page of the second section of the Saturday issue of the New York Evening Post, alongside book reviews, a report on plans to build a monument at George Washington’s birthplace, anecdotes about figures such as Ulysses S. Grant and Giuseppe Verdi, and a few short jokes of the sort common in papers at the time.  On the face of it, “Do Fish Talk?” could perhaps have been mistaken as an authentic piece of journalism, describing actual events—that is, right up until the closing remarks about the “confidential” nature of the fish conversation finally betray it beyond all doubt as a fictional work.

Until that point, the piece straddles the edge of plausibility and includes various details that give it some semblance of truth.  Santa Catalina Island and Pebble Beach are real places.  The Wilmington Transportation Company was a real company, and it really had a steamship called the FalconKollicher says he’s a “disciple of Garner”; as many readers back in 1894 would have known, Richard Lynch Garner had been recording the sounds of monkeys and related animals in an effort to decipher their “languages,” and he had famously ensconced himself with his phonograph in a cage in Africa as part of this work.[2]  Even the name “Kollicher” is deceptively similar to that of Albert Kölliker (1817-1905), who was a leading zoologist of the time.  Moreover, there’s nothing inherently impossible about the basic premise here: fish really do make sounds, and these have since been recorded (see e.g. here and here).  But “Do Fish Talk?” was in fact a piece of speculative fiction—indeed, I don’t see why it wouldn’t count solidly as science fiction.  It wittily explores the potential implications of what was, at the time, an untested technological possibility: namely, the use of new sound-recording technology to discover, document, and decipher the languages of sea creatures.

And, as it happens, it was only the first of several writings about the same premise and the same character.  The next one appeared two and a half years later, in the New York World of May 23, 1897, p. 38.  [NOTE: I based my transcription of the following article on a scan at that crops a small portion of the text.  If you happen to have convenient access to microfilm of the daily edition of the New York World, I’d be grateful for a more complete scan so that I can fill in the gaps in the text below.]


PROF. J. L. KOLLICKER, of the Royal Naples Aquarium, the greatest fish expert in the world, says that fish talk. He asserts that they have a language capable of interpretation and backs up his assertions with phonographic records obtained from the deep.

He asserts that the monsters of the sea converse with each other as freely as human beings and that he has some of these conversations on his phonograph records and can reproduce them.

Prof. Kollicker lays stress on the fact that fish have intelligence to a much greater degree than is generally believed and are far above the low plane to which they have been assigned. He says his investigations show they experience emotion and that joy, hate, love and anger are all represented in their movements.

Prof. Kollicker has worked for years perfecting instruments to imitate the sounds made by various fishes. While he does not claim that these instruments are perfect as yet, he has, nevertheless, already upset many of the theories of science regarding the finny inhabitants of the seas. His experiments are wonderfully interesting.

By manipulating certain instruments he can imitate the sound emitted by almost any kind of fish. The professor says his instruments really show that fish have a language of their own and as distinct between species as human language is between the spoken tongues of different nations of men.

The point in the Mediterranean at which most of the experiments were made was the little town of Brancaleone, on the extreme southern point of Italy, at the junction of the Ionian Sea with the Mediterranean. The waters of the two seas meet here and the spot is full of all forms of submarine life. It is an ideal place for such operations. The professor was aided in his work by several fish scientists, who in turn accompanied him to the bottom. A large iron cage was first lowered overboard to the ocean’s bed. It was made of light latticed iron, yet strong enough to keep out any of the large and voracious sea monsters that might try to enter.

The professor and his companion were then buckled into modern diving suits and lowered to the bottom, where the cage was anchored. The scientific instruments were then lowered to them from above. First was sent down a submarine phonograph, with an enormous receiver. Then followed a peculiar camera, invented by Panici, for submarine work. These were carefully arranged in position. Floating buoys marked the resting place of the cage. It was about one-half mile off shore and in about seventy-five feet of water.

By an ingenious device the professor and his companion were connected by telephone, which permitted of free conversation.

The professor quickly got to work. He opened his phonograph, which was operated by electricity from above. He placed it in position and attached a broad receiver to it. Above and below it he fixed in position a number of slanting mirrors.

kollicher-1897THE SEA ILLUMINATED.

On the opposite side of the cage he placed his submarine camera. A number of incandescent electric lamps were fastened to various parts of the cage. These the professor turned on, illuminating the bed of the ocean for many feet around.

He next brought out a tin box from which he took a quantity of crab meat and sprinkled it around outside the cage. He then handed his companion a paraffine tablet on which to record observations, and was ready for business.

Presently the fish began to come, attracted by the brilliant electric light. Little fellows swam up, passing in between the lattice work right through the cage. But to these the professor paid no attention. He was waiting for certain species. In a short time a big fellow came swimming slowly along. When within a few feet of the cage he stopped and pointed for the bait. The professor picked up a rubber instrument which gave forth a gurgling murmur. At the sound of the instrument the fish backed away from the bait and remained poised in the water. Bubbles were seen rising from its mouth, and while of course no sound could be heard through the headpiece, it was nevertheless clearly apparent that it was excited.


The professor swung the huge receiver around in a direct line with the fish’s mouth, the electric switch was turned and the phonograph set in motion. The bubbles continued rising from its mouth and the professor whispered that he was making a fine record.

Leaving the phonograph for a moment, he quickly turned the mirrors around so that the fish saw its own reflection. Its actions were very remarkable. It opened its mouth wide, looked in the mirrors and darted about in a circle. As it flashed past the camera the professor snapped the shutter and had a splendid record and picture of it.

A school of small fish then floated past, and following them came a hideous-looking monster, stocky and short, with a powerful tail. The electric light was turned out in order to lure it closer, while the professor set a new sounding contrivance in motion. When the monster was near the cage […] suddenly turned on and the camera […]. The fish started, rolled its eyes and […]ed. The mirrors were again slanted […] seeing its reflection, opened its mouth […]

The professor caught the sounds the monster was making in the receiver.


Next a long, slender head, followed by a long, powerful body, came within a foot of the bait. “It is a marine eel!” shouted the professor. “I will get a photograph of him.” But before he could get the camera ready a strange incident took place. The eel was noticed being gradually drawn away from the bait, notwithstanding his efforts to get to it. Suddenly it whirled around, as if stung in the back by some unseen foe. In a moment the water around the cage became agitated and the long tentacles of an octopus were seen waving to and fro about the eel’s body.


The arms of the devil fish came nearer, dragging after them an uncanny body, with two fierce eyes that gleamed with vicious intent. Then took place a battle royal between these two most formidable sea monsters, which the octopus won.

For some minutes the water was colored red with the blood of the fighting monsters, but gradually cleared. When the lights were again turned on the octopus was nowhere to be seen.

A shark next appeared. The professor began whirring a clothes-pin-like instrument, which imitated the sound produced by sharks. As it heard the sound the shark darted ahead as if shot. Seeing its image in the mirror it darted at it, striking its head again and again against the mirror.


The professor got both a photograph and a record of it, which, he said, was the first photographic [sic] record ever made of a shark’s voice.

After being down three hours the scientists signaled to be drawn up. On reaching shore the records were carefully gone over in the professor’s study. They gave out a series of weird gruntal sounds. The professor claimed the results to be more than gratifying, but said it would take considerable time and involve a great deal of study to interpret them, so as to get an idea of what emotions the sounds represented. He said, however, that every record had been faithfully made, and that he expected to find the different sounds indicative of amazement, anger and curiosity.

“The fact of these various sounds or words made by fish are not so marvellous [sic] as they seem,” said the professor. “These notes come from the swimming bladder, that has a diaphra[g]m and muscles for opening and closing it. The air is forced into the oesophagus, or throat. As the air-bladder is homologous to the lungs of the higher animals, and the pneumatic ducts to the throat, the emission of sound is not so strange after all. After a few more experiments I hope to […] that fish […]

The professor was now “Kollicker” rather than “Kollicher,” the setting was the Mediterranean Sea rather than the coast of California, and the decipherment of the sounds was represented as a work in progress rather than a fait accompli.  Otherwise, the story was pretty much the same as before, albeit enhanced with a “battle of monsters” and a graphic illustration of the protagonists in their Garneresque cage.  I don’t know whether this piece was written by the same author as the first one, but this time nothing marked it as obviously fictional—the humor, in particular, has been stripped out.  During 1898, the work of Kollicher a.k.a. Kollicker began accordingly to be cited and summarized in the popular press as fact.[3]  In late 1899 and early 1900, some clipping services even tried to send copies of a follow-up article to Professor J. L. Kollicker of Naples on the assumption that he was a real person, and hence a potential customer.  These clippings were forwarded to Albert Kölliker in Würzburg, who submitted them in turn to the Anatomischer Anzeiger along with his own introduction and remarks in German, which I’ve translated in boldface below.

A New Year’s Joke, communicated by A. KOELLIKER.

In the middle of December last year I received from New York through the General Press Cutting Association Limited, company of Henry Romeike, 110 Fifth Avenue, under the address “Prof. J. L. KOLLICKER, Royal Aquarium, Naples, Italy,” sent to me from Naples, the following wonderful fairytale, which I replicate verbatim:

An account of an experiment by Professor J. L. Kollicker, of the Royal Aquarium, Naples, says that at the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea, just off the little town of Brancaleone, the Professor sunk a large iron cage. It was made of latticed iron, not extremely heavy, but strong enough to keep out any sea monster that might attempt to enter. This cage is lighted by electricity, and here the scientist sat, clad in a diving suit, while the fish, attracted by the glare of the electric lights, gathered around him. In this cage was a phonograph, especially constructed for submarine work, and to this was attached a receiver of such great power that it was capable of registering the slightest sound. In this receiver there was a cluster of electric lights, making it the brightest spot of all, the theory being that the fishes, if they could speak at all, would certainly be compelled by their emotions of surprise to utter some sound. The result of the series of experiments that were carried on under these circumstances last summer was more favourable than had been anticipated. After many descents the scientist was able to obtain nearly a dozen clear records, including the note of astonishment of a shark and the cries of astonishment of many deep sea monsters, one or two being specimens the existence of which the scientist had never known. The strange part of it all is that while it was impossible to obtain any distinct sound from the fishes, even when they were caught and taken to the surface, a record was certainly made by the machine, and the sound made by one fish differed greatly from that of any other.

Professor Kollicker in speaking of the results of this experiment says:—“I am of the opinion that the noises produced by fishes will yet be recognised as a language, but that question is yet open to discussion. There is no further doubt, however, that they are expressions of the various emotions and that they have some meaning as a communication between one fish and another. The results of my attempts to obtain records of the sounds made by fishes are extremely gratifying.”

As I didn’t comply on the basis of this temptation with the enclosed invitation to subscribe to these clippings from newspapers, I received on 15 January 1900 from London, 23 Cockspur Street (Telegraphic Address: Bretwalda, London) once again the exact same clipping, which the first time was labeled as coming from the journal “The Field,” now from the journal “Land and Water,” again with the invitation to subscribe, which shows that the Press Cutting Association Limited proceeds with no little tenacity.

Since I was eager to know whether the report of the American paper had at least some small basis in fact, I inquired of colleague DOHRN, who answered me on 29 January: “of a truthful basis there is naturally no question.”  The same result came from inquiring of MINOT, who called the thing “a good fish story, as we call tales, which are more wonderful than true.”  Hopefully all readers of the Anzeiger will rejoice with me at the findings I obtained about the language of fish, as well as that I escaped unharmed from the deep sea monsters who came into the vicinity of my diving apparatus.

With friendly greetings,
Yours, A. KOELLIKER[4]

By this point, the tale had undergone another change: the researchers are no longer described as using mechanical devices to imitate the sounds of fish and instead rely solely on electric lights to cause astonishment and excitement.  To double-check whether there was anything to the story, Kölliker had consulted Anton Dohrn, the founding director of the Naples Aquarium with which “Professor Kollicker” was supposedly affiliated, and Charles Sedgwick Minot, a leading American anatomist.  The experts had decisively pronounced the whole thing a hoax among themselves, but in the meantime the popular press was continuing to take it seriously.  For example, the work of “Kollicker” was referenced as confirming the speculation of a Cornish fishing expert named Matthias Dunn that fish might make noises that other fish can understand, and Dunn himself cited it quite seriously in a footnote to an article about sharks.[5]  Another illustrated article appeared in June 1900, relocating Kollicker from Naples to Vienna but otherwise remaining true to the earlier accounts.

Professor Kollicker Has Phonograph Records to Prove His Theories, the Result of Unique Investigations in Mediterranean Waters.

W. S. Gilbert has placed on record the fact that a certain whale

“used unduly
to swagger and bully.”

Probably with the motive of determining the accuracy of this statement, an attempt has been made to ascertain whether fish can talk or not. Professor Kollicker, who made the experiments, says he is positive that the finny tribes have a language of their own and that future experiments and investigations will reveal its intricacies; in time he even may be able to translate the conversation to which he will listen in his submarine visits.

The method in which the investigations were made is interesting. An iron cage lighted by electricity was prepared and in this the professor was lowered to the bottom of the Mediterranean, enclosed in a diving suit. In the cage was a phonograph with a receiver of such extraordinary power that it would register the slightest sound. Within this receiver was placed a bunch of electric lights; the idea being that the fish would be surprised by this strange visitor in their haunts into uttering whatever exclamations they were accustomed to use under similar circumstances.

kollicher-1900Several of the experiments were fruitless; the records made by the phonograph being useless, because of the various distant sounds, which were intensified by the wonderful sound carrying properties of the water, rendering the voices of the fish inaudible in the chorus of other sounds.

After many attempts, however, the professor secured several especially clear records of the voices of the sea monsters of the Mediterranean waters, and these he has labeled carefully. In the collection is one record which gives distinctly a note of astonishment from a shark, says the scientist, and others give notes of the same character from many sea monsters.

The Mediterranean is considered the best body of water in the world in which to conduct such investigations as this, because almost all sorts of fish are to be found in its waters. There are 643 species of European sea fishes, and of these 444 inhabit the Mediterranean; some of them being peculiar to it alone. It has a greater number of species than the British and Scandinavian seas, but there are not nearly as many useful kinds in its waters.

The vast number of fish in this sea is accounted for by the fact that the waters of the Mediterranean are warmer than those of the Atlantic, owing to the heat from the African deserts and to the sheltering mountains to the north, which afford protection from the cold winds. The surface temperature in summer is about five degrees above that of ocean water. The expeditions for the scientific exploration of the deep seas discovered that this surface temperature is limited to a depth of one hundred fathoms, at every depth beneath this, even down to nineteen hundred fathoms, the temperature of the Mediterranean, unlike that of the Atlantic, is uniform and remains always at about fifty-four or fifty-five degrees. The waters of the Mediterranean, also, unlike most inland seas, contains about one-sixth per cent. more salt than the Atlantic ocean.

Some scientists account for the even temperature of these waters by the pressure of submarine volcanic fires. This view is plausible when the existing active volcanoes of Etna, Vesuvius and Stromboli on its shores, and the comparatively numerous instances of volcanic action by which islands were suddenly upheaved on which volcanic fires have appeared for a short time are taken into consideration.

Prof. Kollicker’s investigations are arousing considerable interest among savants in southern Europe, and the outcome awaited anxiously.

Infinite possibilities are spreading before us. Professor Garner has only succeeded in proving to us that the monkey in his native lair, speaks a language which, with much study, mankind may understand, when the discovery is made that our friends of the deep, in whom, heretofore, we have felt only a gastronomic interest, may prove to be possessed of conversational graces and unsuspected accomplishments.

The gentle Izaak Walton of the future, when meditating along the bank of some sylvan stream, may find his reveries interrupted and his solitude invaded by the trout he has just landed, which will beg piteously to be allowed to end his days among his own familiar friends in the pool of his childhood.[6]

The following year, the press juxtaposed Kollicher’s work with a discovery about fish sounds made by one Lieutenant White of the British Navy.  I suspect White’s discovery was a real one, although I haven’t tracked down any further details about it.  If so, fact and fiction had become rather confusingly entangled by this point.

Curious Fish That Sing.

It may be that some time in the future there will appear a marine Professor Garner, who will declare that fish talk and try to converse with the inhabitants of the seas and other waters of the earth. If a fish cannot talk it is certain that some species can sing. The sound produced by true species of eel is extremely musical, while the Australian lungfish gives out a long-drawn note, something like the note of a tin horn. The shad is also musically inclined, and gives out a note which can be heard for a considerable distance.

Probably the most remarkable sound-producing fish is found in the China seas. It was discovered by Lieutenant White, of the British Navy. The lieutenant was engaged in some hydrographic survey work near the entrance of a river. He anchored his vessel for the night in shallow water. As the darkness fell he heard coming up from beneath the waves a strange confusion of sounds. The sounds resembled the clanging of bells and the beating of drums, and naturally filled the lieutenant with astonishment. It was decidedly uncanny to hear such sounds coming up from the depths of the sea. The natives in his crew, who were familiar with the place, told the lieutenant that the sounds were often heard there, and that they were made by the spirits of a crew of pirates who had been drowned there years before. Not having much faith in ghosts, the Englishman investigated the strange phenomenon, and finally established the fact that the strange noises came from a school of peculiar fish which were common in those waters.

Professor Kollicher’s recent experiments were more interesting. He made a submarine phonograph, which he let down to a depth of fifty fathoms in the Mediterranean Sea. Around the instrument were placed electric lights to attract the fish. The professor continued his experiments for three months and succeeded in getting a record of noises from many different marine creatures. Among other results which he obtained was the getting of a clear record of the cry of astonishment of a shark, which the fish uttered as he dashed toward the glare of the electric light. The sounds uttered by whales, especially when they were near land, are more like talking than singing. The whale, on such occasions, gives out not one sound, but several. In the Gulf of Mexico is found a brilliantly-colored fish called the haemulon. It has a peculiar call, which can be heard from one end of a long ship to the other.

A curious thing about these experiments is that none of these fishes which are known to make these noises while in the water can make a sound when they are taken out of it. The Castle Garden Aquarium might add to its attractiveness by utilizing the musical fish ideas. A lot of singing fish in tanks would be a decided novelty. In Castle Garden Jenny Lind sang for the first time in this country. Perhaps in Castle Garden will be given the first “fish concert.”[7]

After a lull of several years, the fishy phonograph resurfaced briefly in May 1907, once again presented as fact:

Prof. J. L. Kollicker, of the Royal Naples Aquarium, says that fish have intelligence to a much greater degree than is generally believed. His investigations show they experience emotion and that joy, hate, love and anger are all represented in their movements. What’s more, by means of a specially constructed phonograph he learns that they make noises, produced by forcing out air from their swimming bladders and that different species produce different classes of sounds, and that they talk to one another.[8]

The last reference I’ve found to the professor and his underwater recording efforts appeared in the Chicago Tribune of March 15, 1908, p. D6, alongside features entitled “Why the Jap Seems to Be Slant Eyed” and “Is Oyster Becoming Extinct?”.  This time he is neither “Kollicher” nor “Kollicker,” but “Koellecker”—yet another variant of “Kölliker” that leaves little doubt that the strategy was to obfuscate by giving the hero of the story a deceptively recognizable name.

Learning the Language of Fishes.

Harken to the music of the fishes. Prof. Koellecker, working with a microphone, has succeeded in getting the records of the noises given off by fish. He found the gurnet the best talkers, and has several phonograph cylinders which reproduce the remarks of this fish. The noises most noticeable to the ordinary fishermen are thought merely involuntary, inexpressive, or convulsive. They may be caused by a blow on the head or a prick from a sharp pointed instrument. But there are other noises that are entirely voluntary and proceed from different parts of the body, according to the species of the fish. Some, among them the mackerel, with which most experiments have been made, articulate by moving the superior and inferior motor muscles of the pharynx, behind the mouth; others emit distinct sounds from the spine, which is extremely sensitive, and some bring all their internal organs into play at their own sweet will, until the air around them is a babel of sounds. French science has proved that fifty-two species of fish can talk. Most of us know the spasmodic sighs which attend the death of the dwellers of the deep. These sights are thought to have language meaning. The homely mackerel, it appears, is most loquacious, and has several different intonations, strident, clear, sonorous, and always noisy, so that he may be heard a yard away. He also is sulky in his habits and apt to be rough of speech. The moonfish makes noises like a pig, and is extremely violent when excited. Carp, chub, red mullet, and eels suggest the whistling sounds one makes when breathing down a narrow tube. Some of these are much more distinct than others. The red mullet is far noisier than the eel, and the chub, when he is angry and otherwise agitated, cries out like a mouse or a kitten.

So how does Professor Kollicher (or Kollicker, or Koellecker) ultimately figure into the history of underwater sound recording?  It’s clear that he wasn’t a real person, and my first two sources in particular can be read as straightforward works of science fiction—works that played creatively with imaginings of what might be technologically and zoologically possible.  But it’s also clear that his story was sometimes believed and recounted as fact.  I suspect this is due more to the ambiguity of newspaper fiction than to any outright attempt at a hoax, although it’s hard to tell for sure.  News and fiction were both staples of the nineteenth-century American newspaper, and if they were often visually indistinguishable from one another, that doesn’t mean works of fiction which could be mistaken for news were necessarily trying to fool anyone.  Even so, at some point the Kollicher story crossed over from one category to the other, and then it was no longer just a thing of speculative fiction; it had become a part of the history of what people—some people, at least—believed had actually been done.  I’m not entirely sure when the first real sound recordings of marine organisms were made, but I’ve seen the breakthrough dated to the late 1940s (e. g., here).  “That’s all well and good,” I can imagine some old-timer saying at the time, “but there’s nothing new about it, you know.  Why, I remember reading a story in the paper a bunch of years ago….”


1. New York Evening Post, Dec. 22, 1894, p. 11, online here.  Reprinted as “Can Fish Converse?  The Remarkable Experiments of Prof. Kollicher.  Piscatorial Parly Under.  A Disciple of Garner Makes Strange Use of the Phonograph in His Attempt to Contribute to the Knowledge of Science—Fish Tones for Remorse and Joy Which Are Supposed to Be Intelligible—Different Fish Utter Different Sounds,” Washington Post, Dec. 30, 1894, p. 22; and as “Do Fish Hold Conversations?  An Extract from the Remarkable Experience of Prof. Kollicher.  A Disciple of Garner.  Bound to Learn the Fish Language—Can Sit on the Rocks and Talk to the Finny Tribes—A Descent Beneath the Waves in a Cage—Talking With Denizens of the Deep,” Albany Evening Journal, Jan. 11, 1895, p. 2.

2. On Garner’s work, see Gregory Radick, “R. L. Garner and the Rise of the Edison Phonograph in Evolutionary Philology,” in New Media, 1740-1915, ed. Lisa Gitelman and Geoffrey B. Pingree (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2003), 175-206; Patrick Feaster, “The Origins of Ethnographic Sound Recording, 1878-1892,” Resound 20:1/2 (January-April 2001): 1, 3-8, at 5-7; Patrick Feaster, “‘Rise and Obey the Command’: Performative Fidelity and the Exercise of Phonographic Power,” Journal of Popular Music Studies 24:3 (September 2012): 357-395, at 366-368.

3. See e.g., “The Talk of Fishes,” Davenport Daily Republican (Davenport, Iowa), Aug. 26, 1898, p. 7, citing London Answers.

4. “Ein Neujahrsscherz, mitgeteilt von A. Koelliker,” Anatomischer Anzeiger 17 (1900), 223-24, online here.

5. E.g., Anglers’ Record: The Official Medium of the Leeds & District Amalgamated Society of Anglers 32:3 (Jan. 1900), 4, online here. See also the footnote about “Prof. Kollicker” in Matthias Dunn, “Sharks,” The Living Age, Ser. 7, Vol. 9 (Oct.-Dec. 1900), 20-31, at 24, online here.

6. Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, June 24, 1900, p. 12. Identified explicitly as written for the Democrat and Chronicle, although it appeared in the New Orleans Times-Picayune of the same date (see here) and was reprinted elsewhere, e.g., as “Do Fish Talk?  Professor Kollicker Says They Do, and Has Phonographic Records to Prove It.  Safe In an Iron Cage He Studies the Language of the Finny Tribes,” Duluth Evening Herald, June 26, 1900, online here; and as “Do Fish Talk?  Interesting Investigations in Mediterranean Waters,” Phonoscope 4:3 (March 1900), 6.

7. Bucks County Gazette (Bristol, Pennsylvania), 27 June 1901, p. 2.

8. New York World, May 23, 1907, quoted in Meyer Brothers Druggist 28 (1907), 397, online here.



2 thoughts on “The Fishy Phonograph of Professor Kollicher

  1. Long post, but very detailed, and very interesting because of it’s strange material. I loved the way you presented it, I believed in Kollicher at first, just because of the news excerpts. Thank you for sharing this!

  2. Pingback: My Fiftieth Griffonage-Dot-Com Blog Post | Griffonage-Dot-Com

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