Charles Wheatstone’s Enchanted Lyre and the Spectacle of Sound

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Abstract

Dickson makes Wheatstone’s Enchanted Lyre or “Acoucryptophone” the point of departure for a study of fantasies about the materialisation and sight of sound. The Acoucryptophone was one device on display in the young Wheatstone’s “Musical Museum.” It consisted of a lyre suspended from the ceiling by a brass wire connected to other musical instruments in the room above; when these were played, their sounds would seem to emanate directly from the lyre. For acousticians, the apparatus demonstrated the principle that sound travelled more effectively through metal than through air. But the case of the Enchanted Lyre allows us to see how, in early nineteenth-century London, scientific demonstration could be elided with discourses of the supernatural, or marked with indices of the conjurer’s act. Dickson considers emerging telegraphic conceptions of “musical sound” as necessarily “abstract, intangible, and ethereal,” showing how such popular-scientific devices as the Enchanted Lyre and Invisible Girl rendered sound-waves visible while displacing the labor of performance. Ultimately, the Enchanted Lyre became both a tangible model of sound waves in action and the means by which to cultivate newly idealized notions of musical sound, sound being configured here as a matter beyond physical embodiment or sensory perception.

Details

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationSound knowledge
Subtitle of host publicationmusic and science in London, 1789-1851
EditorsJames Q. Davies, Ellen Lockhart
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2017

Keywords

  • Charles Wheatstone, Acoustics, Musical Instruments, acoucryptophone, History of Sound, History of the Senses, Chladni figure, Telegraphy