Something in the air: Dr Carter Moffat’s Ammoniaphone and the Victorian science of singing

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In January 1885, the Glaswegian Professor of Chemistry Dr Robert Carter Moffat organised a special operatic concert at St James’s Hall, London, to which he invited around two thousand scientists and musicians. The point of this invitation concert was that all the singers used bottled air. Moffat himself appeared between the various performances, wielding his mysterious Ammoniaphone, or bottled-air machine, a long silver tube which he flourished in the faces of his audience while describing its virtues with considerable animation. The premise of the Ammoniaphone was that since Italian opera singers were known throughout the world for the beauty of their voices, it stood to reason that this must have something to do with the quality of the air they breathed. The Ammoniaphone, Moffat claimed, contained the precise chemical formula of the air in Southern Italy, and inhaling from this instrument effectively resulted in the ‘Italianization of the voice’.

Drawing on representations of the Ammoniaphone across nineteenth-century advertising and the medical and musical press, and situating these representations within the broader Victorian fascination with the supremacy of Italian opera singers, this essay offers new insight into the emergent corporeal anxieties betrayed by late nineteenth-century consumer culture, and the various methods by which the body might be continually fashioned and re-fashioned in order to produce a high-functioning social subject in a fast-paced modern society. Aggressively (not to say unscrupulously) advertised, the Ammoniaphone was marketed to vocalists, clergymen, public speakers, choirmasters, schoolmasters, parliamentarians, and enthusiastic amateurs of these vocations, with claims that it would conserve and preserve the voice, expand its range upwards and downwards, and lend it an otherwise unobtainable purity, beauty and richness. This, I will argue, was symptomatic of a broader cultural need to counter the stresses and strains of modern life, and to wreak some kind of evolutionary advantage through artificial intervention.
Original languageEnglish
JournalScience Museum Group Journal
Issue number9
Publication statusPublished - 3 Jul 2017


  • Ammoniaphone
  • Evolutionary Biology
  • Robert Carter Moffat
  • Italian Vocal School
  • Climate Theory
  • Commodity Culture
  • History of Medicine
  • nineteenth century
  • History of Technology


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