The Non-Western Roots of Modern Audio Technology

I’ve never been into the debates over who invented the telephone.  It’s not that I don’t have an opinion.  It’s just that I don’t find the question of credit for the invention all that interesting, especially when it turns into a zero-sum game, a picking of sides, a competition where making a case for one inventor means branding someone else a charlatan or thief.  I’m quite interested in pinpointing the “firsts” themselves—who first came up with the various ideas that underlie the telephone, when and how those ideas were first put into practice—but that’s because I want to gain a better sense of the intellectual and technological factors involved in those moments, and not because I want to make a case for putting someone’s picture on a postage stamp.  Judging from what I’ve read on the subject, I seem to be in the minority.  For all the ink that’s been spilled in the controversy over “who really invented the telephone,” there’s been surprisingly little effort to spell out any significant implications one or another position might have for the cultural history of sound.  It’s been all about bragging rights: my guy versus your guy.  I’d like to change that.

Let me be more specific about what I mean by “significant implications.”  In his influential book The Audible Past, Jonathan Sterne has argued that sound transduction technologies such as the telephone arose out of specific nineteenth-century Western European theories and practices associated with hearing.  Of particular importance here was the “tympanic principle,” or the hypothesis that the eardrum—and by analogy any thin, taut membrane—can faithfully transduce aerial sound waves at arbitrary frequencies, including the complex waves that constitute the sounds of spoken language, distinctive timbres, and so forth.

I find that this hypothesis was less widely accepted among experts at the time than Sterne suggests, and in fact this is the subject of an academic article I’ve had in the works for several years now.  I’ll be sharing some of my findings at a workshop on “Auditory Knowledge in the Arts” at Georgetown University this September, but here’s a sneak preview of the most relevant points: the tympanic principle was first formally set forth by Félix Savart in 1822 and was widely embraced until 1860, when a challenge by Justin Bourget and Félix Bernard—based on a study of resonant frequencies and nodal patterns—led to a general perception among experts that it had been discredited.  European inventions based on the tympanic principle, such as the phonautograph and Reis telephone, weren’t yet able to offer compelling evidence in its favor; to the contrary, the Bourget-Bernard position was cited to “explain” their apparent shortcomings.  As of the mid-1870s, the consensus among leading acousticians was that proponents of the tympanic principle were hopelessly naïve, and that instruments such as the telephone and phonograph were doomed to failure.

Alexander Graham Bell’s work fits neatly into the above story.  Bell was definitely familiar with the tympanic principle as put forward by European acousticians, although he seems to have been unaware of the criticisms leveled against it.  Among other things, he had used a phonautograph to record speech sounds in 1874-75, an experience often cited by historians as informing his telephone work.  If we accept that Bell invented his electric speaking telephone, we can confidently trace the inspiration for its use of a membrane to pick up complex sounds out of the air back to specific trajectories in nineteenth-century Western auditory theory, even though these trajectories lay a little further outside the mainstream than Sterne suggests.  All the elements that coalesced in the invention could then be attributed tidily to European science and instrumentation, making “sound” as we understand it today a product of Western civilization, if we agree with Sterne that it’s a cultural construct.

But what happens to all this if we buy the argument that it was not Alexander Graham Bell who invented the telephone, but Elisha Gray?

Bell and Gray famously both filed patent paperwork describing liquid-transmitter telephones on the same day: February 14, 1876.  Gray’s supporters (such as Seth Shulman) claim that he submitted his paperwork first and that Bell illicitly learned about the idea, copied it into his own application (which dealt mainly with other things), and managed to get his submission recorded ahead of Gray’s.  Bell’s supporters (such as Edwin Grosvenor) counter that this claim rests on discredited testimony, that the liquid-transmitter telephone never went anywhere, and that there’s abundant evidence Bell had already hit upon the more successful induction method back in 1875.  You can read more about the controversy here if you like.

To repeat, I don’t personally find the question of credit for the invention all that interesting in and of itself.  But I am interested in the question of whether ascribing the invention of the telephone to Gray rather than Bell would have any impact on the question of the telephone’s ultimate conceptual origins.  In Bell’s story, the inspiration for the telephone lies wholly in Western science and instrumentation, centered on the phonautograph and the tympanic principle on which it was based.  Gray’s story points in a different direction, as we’ll see.  What’s at stake here depends on your verdict on the controversy.  I assume the people who claim Bell stole the telephone from Gray would regard Gray’s story as documenting the true origin of the telephone as we know it.  But even if we accept Bell’s own narrative of invention at face value, which I’m inclined to do myself, nobody seems to dispute that Gray came up with his liquid transmitter independently; I’ve never seen anyone claim that Gray stole the idea from Bell, or from any of the other claimants (Meucci, Drawbaugh, etc.).  So whatever it was that inspired Gray to invent his liquid transmitter, it was evidently a path that led to the invention of a telephone, regardless of whether Bell was independently following some other path to the same point, and regardless of whether anyone else had already done so.  Whether Gray was first or not has no bearing on the fact that he got to the telephone by pursuing a line of reasoning and insight that differed significantly from Bell’s, but that was equally possible in the milieu of mid-1870s America.

So let’s trace Gray’s own steps towards the electric telephone.  As of June 1874, he was already using a metallic diaphragm (i.e., an eardrum-like membrane) as a receiver for transducing electrical signals produced by tuned-reed electrotomes into audible sound, but he didn’t see any practical way to create electrical signals corresponding to the complex sounds of speech:

At that date, my conception of a transmitter for the transmission of articulate words was a mechanism which would employ such tones as needed, and would enable one to manipulate them in whatever manner was requisite to produce the desired effect.

In other words, I supposed it would be necessary to construct a mechanism similar to the vocal organs of the throat, which would mould electrical waves into the same form that the air is moulded when a spoken word is uttered.   This seemed too complicated a machine to be easily constructed…. [1]

In early 1875, Gray changed his opinion in light of experiments he had carried out with an apparatus he called his “second mechanical transmitter”:

It consisted of a revolving shaft, upon which were mounted two eccentric cams, having one or more projections.  These actuated two small levers, causing them to vibrate upon their respective break-points, through which points a battery current passed.  From a pulley on this shaft I connected a belt to one of the wheels of a lathe which was driven by steam power, from which it derived a uniform motion and a definite rate of speed….  The pressure of the levers upon their contact-points was controlled by elastic springs.

When this apparatus was put in operation I noticed that a sound of peculiar quality, not unlike that of the human voice when in great distress, proceeded from the receiver.

By altering the tension of the spring in various ways with my hand, I found that I was able to imitate many different sounds involving the vowels only.  I succeeded, among other things, in producing a groan with all its inflections in the greatest perfection.  By skilfully manipulating the spring in the manner before mentioned a very great range in the quality of the sounds was produced, using only a single break-point.

Up to the time of making this experiment I had associated in my mind, in connection with transmission of spoken words, a complicated mechanism involving a separate vibrating reed for each separate tone transmitted.  This experiment produced an entire change in my views, and I came to the conclusion that it could all be done by means of a single transmitter….  [2]

Gray had found that he could produce timbrally rich speech-like sounds in a receiver by manually controlling the pressure of a lever vibrating against a single break-point on the transmitting end.  This was still sound synthesis, but the mechanism was far simpler than he had imagined it would need to be to achieve such results.  Even so, he had no idea as yet how to go about picking up actual speech sounds out of the air and transducing them into electrical signals.  That crucial insight came during his stay in Milwaukee, which he dated as having run approximately from November 1, 1875, to January 10, 1876:[3]

During my stay in Milwaukee at this time I saw for the first time a toy called “the lovers’ telegraph,” consisting of a membrane stretched over the end of a tube, and having a thread attached to the centre, the other end of which was attached to a similar membrane.

The fact that spoken words were distinctly transmitted by the longitudinal vibrations of the thread from one membrane to the other confirmed the idea that I had formed something like a year previous to this time; and it immediately solved in my mind the problem of making a transmitter that would copy electrically the physical vibrations of the air produced by articulate sounds.  I determined to put this into practical shape and file it in the records of the Patent Office….

Following out the suggestion made by the diaphragm and string of the lovers’ telegraph, I designed a transmitting apparatus which copied the motions of the diaphragm electrically, through the longitudinal vibrations of a light rod attached to the centre of the diaphragm.  These electrical vibrations of undulations were the result of the variations in the resistance of the circuit made by the longitudinal motions of the rod moving in a yielding substance offering a considerable resistance to the passage of the electric current.[4]

Gray writes that it was his exposure to a “lovers’ telegraph” in Milwaukee during late 1875 or early 1876 that provided him with his eureka moment: with that, the solution to the electric transmission of speech suddenly became clear to him.  The same insight Bell owed to his (imperfect) knowledge of recent European acoustic and otological developments came to Gray from seeing a particular kind of toy in action.  He thought of using a taut membrane to pick up sounds out of the air for transmission over a distance only because he’d witnessed this being done successfully in the “lovers’ telegraph.”  If we want to trace the history of that idea back further along this alternative thread of causality and inspiration, we need to explore how it had come to be embodied in the “lovers’ telegraph” itself so that Gray could discover it.

The “lovers’ telegraph” was essentially the device known today as the tin-can telephone, although the ones being sold and exhibited in the United States in 1875 and 1876 were made with tin cylinders spanned with animal-skin membranes.  Here’s a fanciful illustration of one that appeared in the October 1876 issue of Scribner’s Monthly:[5]

lovers-telegraphOther names traditionally given to this device are thread telegraph, string telegraph, thread telephone, and string telephone.  For clarity, I’ll refer to it here myself as the membrane-string-telephone.

So when and where did the membrane-string-telephone originate?

That’s a tough question for several reasons, one of which is that past historians have done a lousy job of distinguishing the membrane-string-telephone from mechanical telephones in general—i.e., devices for passing vibrations mechanically through solid conductors.  The person routinely credited with inventing the “string telephone” is Robert Hooke, usually based on a passage from the preface to his Micrographia (1665), viz.: “I have, by the help of a distended wire, propagated the sound to a very considerable distance in an instant…and this not only in a straight line, or direct, but in one bended in many angles.”  However, Hooke didn’t actually write anything about picking up sounds out of the air using an eardrum-like membrane, which is the specific feature of the string telephone that inspired Gray to invent his liquid transmitter.  How Hooke got vibrations into his wire isn’t at all clear from his account; for all we know, he might just have been tapping on it.  The eardrum-like membrane is also absent from the other European mechanical telephones most often cited from before the mid-1870s, such as Charles Wheatstone’s “enchanted lyre,” which picked up vibrations directly from musical instruments or through a sounding-board and conveyed them through a rod to a lyre-shaped reciprocator.  Other remarks that seem to project the beginnings of the membrane-string-telephone in the Western tradition back before the 1870s are red herrings too.  For example, the English-language edition of the Count du Moncel’s book on the telephone, microphone, and phonograph states of the membrane-string-telephone: “These instruments, which have flooded the cities of Europe for several years, since the date of the invention was 1867, are interesting in themselves, and we are surprised that they have not hitherto taken a place in the collections of physical science.”[6]  That 1867 date was copied into other publications in turn,[7] but a comparison with the original French edition of Moncel shows that 1867 was merely a typographical error for 1667, in reference to a different edition of Robert Hooke’s Micrographia.[8]

Despite what you may read elsewhere, there appears to be no evidence whatsoever that Robert Hooke used a membrane to pick up sounds out of the air and transduce them into a wire for transmission over a distance in the 1660s.  As far as I can tell, this commonly cited account of the origin of the membrane-string-telephone is simply wrong.  Unfortunately, most historians have assumed it to be true, so they haven’t seen any need to work out when and where the membrane-string-telephone really originated.  I submit that it’s high time for us to give the matter a fresh hearing.

lovers-telegraph-detailIn fact, it seems to have been just as puzzling for Bell and Gray’s contemporaries as it is for us today.  In a book published in 1878, Alfred Niaudet describes his own efforts to trace the origins of the porte-voix à ficelle or “string voice-carrier,” as the membrane-string-telephone was commonly known in France:

We’ve had great difficulty in discovering the inventor of this charming apparatus, whose place is marked in all cabinets of physics and which may be able to find practical applications.

We guessed only that the invention was recent, since it’s not referenced in the nice publication by M. Radau (of 1867), in which are gathered together so many curious pieces of information and piquant discoveries of erudition, nor in Sound by Tyndall (of 1869), nor in the most recent publication of M. Gavarret, On Phonation and Hearing (1877), nor in the publication of Lord Ra[y]leigh which also bears the date 1877, whereas it seems certain that it will be mentioned in all books in the future that devote a chapter to acoustics.[9]

Niaudet proceeds to credit the invention to Adolf Ferdinand Weinhold of Chemnitz, citing an alleged description of it in Weinhold’s 1872 textbook on experimental physics.[10]  Weinhold’s apparatus, which he had illustrated pictorially in his textbook—

weinhold-telephone-1872—and which he had first disclosed in a journal article of 1870,[11] had transduced the sounds of music and speech out of the air, through a wire, and back into the air where they could be heard.  However, his transducers were not taut membranes but rigid sounding-boards, much like the ones Charles Wheatstone had already used back in the 1820s to pick up speech and orchestral music in connection with his enchanted lyre.[12]  Weinhold’s apparatus was definitely a kind of mechanical telephone, but it differed fundamentally enough from the membrane-string-telephone of the mid-1870s that it should properly be regarded as a separate device.  And yet it was the closest thing Niaudet could find to a membrane-string-telephone in all the Western acoustic literature at his disposal in 1878.

Another French scientific writer of the same period who grappled with the history of the membrane-string-telephone was Louis Figuier, who states:

The reader certainly has knowledge of the string telegraph [télégraphe à ficelle] which toy merchants sold about 1878 in the shops and streets of Paris for the modest sum of 50 centimes.  The string telegraph is a very old trinket, without anyone being able to say to what epoch it dates back; for everything is bizarre, everything is strange and mysterious in the birth of the telephone.

Today, the string telegraph is entirely forgotten.  It was fashionable in Paris for three months.  But as three months of attention is all Paris can grant any curiosity, after that time nobody thought any more about it, and now not a single one of these devices may be found in the whole of France.  I discovered one by chance at the bottom of an old cabinet drawer, and I could not stop myself, in contemplating the dust that tarnished its noble membranes, from bemoaning the grandeur and decadence of human inventions….

Who is the inventor of the string telegraph?  Mr. Preece, the British electrician, has claimed this invention for a physicist of his nation, Robert Hooke…. We will note, however, that Robert Hooke’s text has nothing to do with a vibrating membrane or mouthpiece.  It is only about a taut wire instantaneously transmitting sound….

The fact is that the inventor of the string telegraph is entirely unknown.  There has never existed any like device in a cabinet of physics, either in the last century or in our own.  But cabinets of physics would certainly have preserved some models thereof if a physicist as esteemed as Robert Hooke was had ever built an instrument of this kind.

Thus, the origin of the string telegraph is lost in a shadowy distance.

What proves that this little toy has been giving joy to children and tranquility to parents for centuries is that it was known in the New World in very remote times.

M. Édouard André, who was charged by the French government in 1870 with a scientific expedition to New Granada, brought back from thence this instrument, which is called fonoscopio in that country, and which serves to amuse children large and small.  The resonating membranes are made of pig bladder, and the receiving horns of bamboo; the string is made of cotton.  Some of these are found of which the string is no less than sixty meters long.  According to the notables of New Granada, the fonoscopio has been known in that country since the conquest of the New World by the Spanish.

In the Republic of Ecuador, the fonoscopio is likewise found serving as a toy for children.[13]

Now we’re getting somewhere!  Figuier can’t point to any early European antecedents for the membrane-string-telephone and rightly dismisses Hooke as irrelevant.  Instead, he supports his claim that the membrane-string-telephone is a very old invention by citing evidence that it had been known for centuries in parts of South America.  He seems to have lifted his account of the fonoscopio pretty closely from an earlier article by M. Jamin,[14] although he garbled the date of the André expedition in the process—it actually took place in 1875 and 1876, not 1870.  We find the date of the discovery pinpointed even more narrowly in a report of a meeting of the Société Française de Physique held on December 6, 1878:

M. Antoine Bréguet presents on behalf of M. Édouard André a string telephone found in New Colombia in January 1876. The instrument would seem to have been known in New Granada for a long time.[15]

That wasn’t the first time the artifact in question had been shown in France, since a “Fonoscopio (telephone) of the children of Fusagasugé (Colombia)” had also been listed among items from the André expedition placed on display earlier that year at the Exposition Universelle, also known as the third Paris World’s Fair.[16]  André’s own account of the fonoscopio, published in 1878, places it in the specific context of bull-running in Fusagasugá, a town in central Colombia:

Once or twice a year, the square is the scene of public celebrations, of which the fiesta del toros is the principal one.  A bull is chosen of fairly peaceful appearance, and the ends of his horns are trimmed with a string to which the movement of a saw is impressed.  Then the place is enclosed with palisades and the animal is let loose, which the toreros arouse with their ruanas.  Neither the espada nor the banderillas are used in this ridiculous pastiche of Spanish bullfights, which suffices for the bravery of the Messrs. Fusagasugaños.  During this time, the boys run through the streets armed with bamboo cylinders covered with a membrane into which is placed a thread, and make of this apparatus a rustic telephone which I heard called fonoscopio by a native, Señor Rivas.[17]

Here’s a picture of a “bull-feast” at Fusagasugá from a travelogue published in 1857, which also establishes that such events traditionally took place around Christmastime,[18] consistent with the January 1876 date of André’s discovery:

bull-feastOf course, the running of the bulls was a colonial importation, so we might be tempted to speculate that the fonoscopio used during it was of Spanish origin as well—something introduced to South America with the Spanish conquest.  After all, the Count du Moncel wrote of the string telephone in 1878: “If certain travelers can be believed, this system has been used for a long time in Spain for amorous correspondence.”[19]  However, I’ve been unable so far to find any actual travelers’ accounts—or other sources—that mention membrane-string-telephones being used in Spain before the 1870s, and other evidence, which I’ll get to in a moment, points to them being a pre-Columbian indigenous development.  Moreover, it might have been a matter of chance that André saw the fonoscopio in use simultaneously with the bull-running; the two phenomena could otherwise have been independent of one another.

As we’ve seen, André characterized the fonoscopio as a “rustic telephone” in a memoir published in 1878, which shows that he recognized it as a “telephone” by that date.  However, it’s not clear whether he had associated it with anything in his past experience when he’d first seen it in January 1876, or whether this was a connection he had made only some time later.  I haven’t yet found any really good evidence as to when the membrane-string-telephone was first sold as a toy in France, but the artist George Quincy Thorndike wrote a letter from Mentone in the French Maritime Alps to the Scientific American, which published it in the issue for May 27, 1876, under the title “A Thread Telegraph” (a close translation of télégraphe à ficelle):

A cheap telegraph, useful for certain purposes, can be made in this way: Take two tin cylinders about the size of a small dice box, say 3 inches long by 1¼ inches diameter; cover one end of each with parchment or bladder, forming a drumhead. Pierce the center with a pin and insert a strong thread, and make a knot to prevent its being withdrawn. With the other end of the thread (which may be of any length, say 100 yards or more) do likewise with the other cylinder, and the telegraph is complete. By keeping the thread tightly drawn, in order that the vibration may be perfect, a person speaking or even whispering in one cylinder can be distinctly heard by another holding the other cylinder to the ear.

Would not such home-made pocket telegraphs be very useful in factories, on farms, in the army, and in many other situations too innumerable to mention? An enterprising person might realize a handsome sum by making them as scientific toys for the Centennial Exhibition. The tubes could be made of cane pole, and I would suggest that they be made to fit one within the other, so as to be easily carried. Stronger ones can be made with small cord, but would be more bulky.[20]

Thorndike’s letter hints that the idea of the membrane-string-telephone was just becoming known in France as of May 1876.  Had André’s discovery in Fusagasugá made it back to his home country by then, in time to inspire such a development?  Or had the toy entered the French market from some other direction?  One early rumor credited its invention rather vaguely to “two boys of Marseilles.”[21]  I don’t know whether to believe that or not.

What’s more certain, however, is that the membrane-string-telephone had hit the toy market in the United States in December 1875, even before André’s discovery; and that it, too, was South American in origin.  I owe this information to the printed record[22] of a court hearing of 1888 initiated on behalf of Elisha Gray and another telephone inventor, James W. McDonough.  The following passage explains the context:

One of the witnesses for McDonough was a dealer in toys in Chicago. He said that in December, 1875, the “lovers’ telegraph,” or string telephone, was put on the market as a New-Year’s toy. Mr. Gray had said that a certain conception came to him in consequence of having seen a lovers’ telegraph sold on the street corner at Milwaukee late in 1875. To aid in fixing the date of their appearance on the street, Mr. [J. J.] Storrow [an attorney] had asked Mr. McDonough to inquire of his friend exactly when this toy first appeared, and then wrote him for some further information about it.

Storrow had written to McDonough on January 31, 1881:

I will be much obliged to you if you will also ascertain from Wetmore & Company, of Cleveland, when and to whom at Milwaukee they first sent the lovers’ telegraph, and whether any one else supplied the West with that article during that winter.

And McDonough had replied on February 16, 1881:

I have received a letter from Cleveland.  Mr. Wetmore says that his first sales were in December, 1875; that the original idea came to him from Lima, Peru, the letter dated November 4, 1875.  They were seen there and in Valparaiso in September and October by his son, Henry S. Wetmore.  Mr. Wetmore is positive that he was the original maker in this country.  I have written to find if he sold any in Milwaukee and Philadelphia.

The documentation notes: “Of course there is nothing in this that has any bearing on this case.”  But I’m grateful that the correspondence was included in the record anyway, since it is unique (to the best of my knowledge) in revealing that the idea of the membrane-string-telephone first came to the United States in a letter from Henry Shepard Wetmore (1841-1896) to his father, who was—according to genealogical sources—Nathaniel Downing Wetmore (1810-1893).  The 1880 federal census identifies “N. D. Wetmore” of Cleveland not as a toy merchant but as a book dealer, and local city directories of the 1870s list him as a partner in the firm of Brainard & Wetmore, described elsewhere as stationers, printers, and bookbinders.  That line of work may not seem to have much to do with toy telephones, but the firm seems to have cultivated a network of agents (see an advertisement here), which the elder Wetmore might have exploited for telephone marketing as well.  Indeed, by August 1876, we find several concerns advertising for “lovers’ telegraph” agents in the New York Sun, including an “inventor” associated with Cleveland who may have been Wetmore:

AGENT.—Inventor Lovers’ Telegraph, who interviewed parties Wednesday, mentioned “Cleveland.” Call immediately, or address B. C., box 175, Sun office. […]
AGENTS.—One dollar will start a profitable business. The speaking telegraph sells at sight; plenty stock on hand. SIMPSON & PEARCE, 12 Jay st. […]
AGENTS—Lovers’ Telegraph, puzzle key rings, watch protectors, and novelties. Empire Novelty Co., 300 Broadway.
AGENTS–$10 daily selling campaign pictures, badges, and lovers’ telegraph. American Man’f’g Co., 300 Broadway. […]
MEN wanted with small capital to sell Lovers’ Telegraph. JAMES WELSH, 75 Mulberry st., in rear.[23]

As for the younger Wetmore, we read the following about him in a newspaper article of 1889:

Captain Henry S. Wetmore, of Cleveland…, after leaving the command of the Ninth Ohio Battery at the close of the [Civil] war, was appointed secretary of the legation to Honduras and subsequently consul to Payta, Peru, both appointments being made under Grant’s administration. He resided in Central and South America until 1884 and is thoroughly conversant with Spanish and Portuguese.[24]

In fact, he had already been appointed Consul to Peru by Abraham Lincoln in 1865, but such details aren’t as important here as the overall picture: Henry Shepard Wetmore was a well-established representative of United States interests in Peru and Chile who would have had ample opportunity to observe what was going on in those countries.  He had evidently seen membrane-string-telephones being used there in September and October 1875, and he had written home about them in November.  By December, his father had copied the idea and begun selling them commercially in the United States.  Elisha Gray saw one shortly thereafter and was inspired by it to imagine the model of electric telephone described in his caveat of February 1876.  Perhaps the toy even made its way from the United States to France during the same period, beating out the news of André’s discovery in Fusagasugá.

French sources, informed by the André expedition, establish that the membrane-string-telephone was known in Colombia and Ecuador, while the Wetmore correspondence establishes that it was also known in Peru and Chile.  That means that its geographical rangeas of 1875 or somust have encompassed most if not all of the western coast of South America.  Moreover, according to the “notables of New Granada,” it wasn’t a recent innovation but instead dated back to the Spanish conquest of the sixteenth century.

This all lends particular interest to a South American “telephone” discovered in the collections of the National Museum of the American Indian.  An article about it, written by Neil Baldwin based on a discussion with curator Ramiro Matos, appeared in Smithsonian Magazine in December 2013.  It may be read in full online here, but the description of the telephone’s physical characteristics and provenance takes up only a few sentences:

The marvel of acoustic engineering—cunningly constructed of two resin-coated gourd receivers, each three-and-one-half inches long; stretched-hide membranes stitched around the bases of the receivers; and cotton-twine cord extending 75 feet when pulled taut—arose out of the Chimu empire at its height…. Somehow—no one knows under what circumstances—it came into the hands of a Prussian aristocrat, Baron Walram V. Von Schoeler.  A shadowy Indiana Jones-type adventurer, Von Schoeler began excavating in Peru during the 1930s.

I’ll also take the liberty of sharing the accompanying photo, credited to Travis Rathbone:

chimu-phoneAccording to the article, this artifact is a product of “the Chimú Empire at its height” and is between 1,200 and 1,400 years old, which (given the date of the publication) would place its manufacture between 613 and 813 AD.  However, those details don’t seem to be compatible with each other.  Wikipedia says that the Chimú culture emerged about 900 AD, expanded into an empire in the first half of the fourteenth century, and was conquered by the Inca around 1470; the preceding Early Chimú or Moche culture had come to an end around 500 AD.  Maybe experts have really dated the artifact to 1200-1400 AD—when the Chimú Empire was actually at its height—and someone got confused about what the numbers meant.  In any case, the Chimú culture was located right in the middle of the known geographical range of the membrane-based string telephone in South America as it stood in the 1870s.  With that in mind, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that the Chimú artifact is just an earlier version of the membrane-string-telephones which Wetmore and André found in use nearby in 1875-76, and that these objects all belong to the same unbroken tradition.

So it seems that the “lovers’ telegraph” which Elisha Gray saw in Milwaukee in late 1875 or early 1876, and which inspired him to devise his liquid transmitter, was not based on recent developments in European acoustic and auditory understanding.  Instead, its design had then just been imported to the United States from South America, where its antecedents can be traced back hundreds of years.  The Gray telephone can thus be understood as, essentially, an electrified adaptation of a Peruvian telephone.  Its adaptation to electricity was crucially important, to be sure, and I don’t mean to downplay that side of things.  But the fundamental idea of using a taut membrane to transduce sounds from the air, transmit them over a distance, and transduce them back into audible sound had plainly come from Peru along with the design of the toy itself.  In this case, the intellectual roots of that idea can’t plausibly be linked to nineteenth-century Western European ideas and practices concerning sound and hearing.

I don’t mean to suggest that South America was unique in having developed such a technology, though.  As I’ve already mentioned, the tympanic principle remained controversial and unproven in Western Europe as of the mid-1870s, but there’s plenty of evidence that membrane-string-telephones were then already well-known in other parts of the world.  Consider, for example, this letter to the editor of the Pioneer in Allahabad, India, published in April 1877:

I read a notice of what is called the newly-invented telephone, which is no invention at all, but merely an adaptation, and of course a vast improvement upon a toy common enough in India, and which used to be a plaything with the ladies of the court of Oudh. I have purchased them on several occasions in Buxar, and have one by me now. It consists of two short cylinders of tin or card-board, wood might be even a better material; one end of each cylinder is covered with tightly stretched bladder. Through the middle of this diaphragm runs a piece of thread which is fastened by a small wooden toggle on the inside. The persons holding the cylinders then walk apart until the string is stretched moderately tight; one places his ear to the open end of one cylinder and the other talks into the open end of the other. Although I am extremely deaf, I have maintained a conversation in quite a low tone at a distance of a hundred yards with one of these instruments.[25]

And this letter, which appeared in the same newspaper the following month:

The girls in Burmah make use of a telephone of the following description:—They get two cylindrical bits of bamboo about 3 inches long, and paste one end of each (or simply tie paper on) so as to make it resemble a drum, a piece of thread is then passed through both, and prevented from slipping through by a small piece of bamboo. With these drums at either end of the string and the string held moderately tight, conversation can be carried on at a considerable distance apart between two people, the one holding the drum to his ear, and the other speaking to the other drum.[26]

And this letter of October 1877 from the Ceylon Observer, written from Dimbula:

As there has been a great deal written lately about the (supposed) new invention of the telephone, it may be of interest to you and your readers to hear that the thing has been in use amongst the Tamil coolies for years past; of course electricity is unknown to them, and therefore they can convey the sound to limited distances only, but for 50 to 100 yards the apparatus works well. The contrivance is very simple: it consists of two tins, the bottoms of which have been knocked out, and one of their ends covered with a bladder. Through this bladder an ordinary thread, 50, 90 or even 100 yards long, is passed connecting the two tins—and the telephone is completed!   When this is done, the parties separate, each with a tin; the one holds his mouth to the tin, and speaks in a low tone, the other holds his ear near his tin, and hears the message as distinctly as it is spoken at the other end.[27]

And this report published in the Journal of the Society of Telegraph Engineers in 1878:

Referring to the string telephone, consisting of a piece of ordinary string stretched between two cylinders (such as the covers of cylindrical match-boxes), which for some years past has been a common plaything, not only in Europe and America, but even in India, Mr. A. Houtum-Schindler, Inspector-General of Persian Telegraphs, in a recent letter to the Secretary, mentions that in Teheran the use of this toy in the streets was carried on to such an extent as to become a nuisance, and had to be eventually prohibited by the police. After some experiments had been made in Teheran a short time ago with the Electric Telephone, the Persians remarked that their children’s invention had been copied by the Europeans, and been named by them the “Telephone.”[28]

These sources show that the membrane-string-telephone was known all across the northern coast of the Indian Ocean by the 1870s, suggesting a long-term process of cultural diffusion there.  The use of the term “Ceylon telephone” for marketing membrane-string-telephones in Great Britain hints that at least one version of the toy might have made its way to the West from Asia rather than from South America.

ceylon-telephonePassing references also turn up to membrane-string-telephones in yet other regions of the world and among yet other culture groups, including the indigenous peoples of the American West—

This simple apparatus might have rendered good service to mankind since the period of its invention; but it has merely been employed as a toy for children or a medium for the conversations of lovers; and further, has only been recently used in Europe, although it has long been utilized by imperfectly civilised races, and is met with among the American Indians in the far west.[29]

—and China:

Though introduced as a common toy since the discovery of the electric telephone, it long antedates it in popular use; unknown to science, it had been invented ages ago by the Chinese, was used by the natives of Ceylon, and has even been employed by English schoolboys for purposes of surreptitious intercommunication.[30]

I’ve only scratched the surface here, of course.  Far more research would be needed to trace the distribution of membrane-string-telephones around the world at various points in history.

Even so, I believe we’re in a position to start drawing some important conclusions.

The global history of sound-transduction technologies has so far been framed mainly in terms of Western innovations being diffused into the rest of the world and adapted to local conditions.  The “very possibility of sound’s reproduction,” to borrow Jonathan Sterne’s phrase, has been represented as one such innovation.  More specifically, the realization that complex sounds could be transduced by an eardrum-like membrane is supposed to have arisen out of Western acoustic and otological science, anchored in the research of men such as Hermann von Helmholtz.

But the technology that most clearly embodied that principle before the mid-1870s was the membrane-string-telephone—an instrument that used an eardrum-like membrane to pick up sound vibrations out of the air for audible “reproduction” at the other end of a line.  It was already familiar in South America and India, and perhaps in other places too, long before it became known in the West.  As we’ve seen, Elisha Gray’s electric telephone of 1876 was itself indebted to a Peruvian precursor, even if he didn’t know it.  Thus, non-Western ideas and practices involving sound and hearing may have contributed significantly to the emergence of modern audio technologies: not just the telephone, but also the phonograph, the microphone, and the loudspeaker.

Now, isn’t that a more interesting prospect to consider than the tired old question, “which dead white guy invented the telephone”?


1. Elisha Gray, Experimental Researches in Electro-Harmonic Telegraphy and Telephony (New York: Russell Brothers, 1878), p. 36.

2. Elisha Gray, Experimental Researches in Electro-Harmonic Telegraphy and Telephony (New York: Russell Brothers, 1878), pp. 52-54.

3. Elisha Gray, Experimental Researches in Electro-Harmonic Telegraphy and Telephony (New York: Russell Brothers, 1878), p. 60.

4. Elisha Gray, Experimental Researches in Electro-Harmonic Telegraphy and Telephony (New York: Russell Brothers, 1878), pp. 75-76.

5. “The Lovers’ Telegraph,” Scribner’s Monthly 12:6 (October 1876), p. 916, online here.

6. Count du Moncel, The Telephone, the Microphone, and the Phonograph (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1879), p. 33, online here.

7. See e.g., Edmund Routledge, ed., Every Boy’s Annual ([s. l.], George Routledge and Sons, 1886), p. 158, online here.

8. Th. du Moncel, Le téléphone, le microphone, et la phonographe (Paris: Hachette, 1878), p. 30, online here.

9. Alfred Niaudet, Téléphones et Phonographes: Étude complète de ces inventions (Paris: J. Baudry, [1878]), pp. 15-16, online here.

10. Adolf F. Weinhold, Vorschule der Experimentalphysik (Leipzig: Quandt & Händel, 1872), pp. 215-218, with illustration at p. 216, online here.

11. A. Weinhold, “Ueber die Fortpflanzung der menschlichen Sprachlaute durch Eisendraht,” Repertorium der Physik 6 (1870), 168-171, online here.

12. Charles Wheatstone, “On the Transmission of Musical Sounds through Solid Linear Conductors, and on their subsequent Reciprocation,” Journal of the Royal Institution of Great Britain 2 (1831), 223-238, at pp. 234, 238, online here; see also Benjamin Silliman, Jr., First Principles of Physics, or Natural Philosophy (Philadelphia: H. C. Peck & Theo. Bliss, 1859), p. 266, online here, which describes a setup even more similar to Weinhold’s.

13. Louis Figuier, Les nouvelles conquêtes de la science: L’Électricité (Paris: E. Girard & A. Boitte, [1885?]), pp. 357-360, online here.

14.  M. Jamin, “Conférence sur les téléphones et les phonographes,” Bulletin hebdomadaire de l’association scientifique de France 25 (March 1880), pp. 374-5, online here.

15.  La Nature 7:291 (December 28, 1878), p. 55, online here.

16.  Exposition universelle de 1878: Catalogue du ministère de l’instruction publique des cultes et des beaux-arts (Paris: Imprimerie de la Société de publications périodiques, 1878), 2:2:6, online here.

17.  Éd. Andre, “L’Amérique équinoxiale (Colombie—Éqauteur—Pérou),” Le Tour du Monde 35 (June 1878), pp. 129-224, at p. 182, online here.

18. Isaac F. Holton, New Granada: Twenty Months in the Andes (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1857), pp. 296-299, illustration on p. 298; online here.

19.  Th. du Moncel, Le téléphone, le microphone, et la phonographe (Paris: Hachette, 1878), p. 2, online here.

20.  Geo. Quincy Thorndike, “A Thread Telegraph,” Scientific American n.s. 34:22 (May 27, 1876), p. 340, online here.

21.  M. Jamin, “Conférence sur les téléphones et les phonographes,” Bulletin hebdomadaire de l’association scientifique de France 25 (March 1880), pp. 374-5, online here.

22.  Petitions of McDonough and Gray to Reopen the Speaking Telephone Interferences: Hearing, February 1 to February 9, 1888, Before Hon. Benton J. Hall, Commissioner (Boston: Alfred Mudge & Son, 1888), p. 161, online here.  One of the court reporters handling the case was Edward D. Easton of the Columbia Phonograph Company.

23.  New York Sun, Aug. 3, 1876, online here.

24.  “Hither and Thither,” Pittsburg (Pa.) Dispatch, Oct. 29, 1889, online here.

25.  N. J., “A Native Telephone,” Pioneer (Allahabad, India), April 10, 1877, p. 5.  Readex World Newspaper Archive.

26. Chillinga Wullabadorie, “Burmese Telephones,” Pioneer (Allahabad, India), May 29, 1877, p. 4. Readex World Newspaper Archive.

27. L., “A Native Telephone,” Overland Ceylon Observer (Colombo), Oct. 8, 1877, p. 305. Indexed in Readex World Newspaper Archive as Oct. 10, 1877, p. 25.

28. “The Common String Telephone,” Journal of the Society of Telegraph Engineers 7 (1878), p. 331, online here.

29.  Routledge’s Every Boy’s Annual, p. 117, online here.  The title page is missing, but a library stamp appears to date it to 1884.

30.  John T. Sprague, Electricity: Its Theory, Sources, and Applications, (London: E. & F. N. Spon, 1884), p. 591, online here.  For a further Chinese lead, try googling Kung Foo Whing, tenth-century inventor of the Thumthsein, as reportedly reported in the Peking Gazette (京报) in or around 1878.


One thought on “The Non-Western Roots of Modern Audio Technology

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