Articles on acoustical instruments in the Whipple Museum

Part of synthesizer
Detail of part of Helmholtz's apparatus for the synthesis of sound. Made by Rudolph Koenig, late 19th-century. Image © the Whipple Museum (Wh.1312).

This section contains articles about instruments used for studying acoustics, the science of sound. The 19th century saw an explosion of interest in acoustics and the Whipple Museum's collection contains many important examples of instruments from this period. Use the links below or in the menu to the left to select an article.

Historical notes: A brief chronicle of the tuning fork. The tuning fork is a fascinating example of an object that is both a scientific instrument and a musical instrument. This article offers a brief overview of its history.

Ernst Chladni, the father of acoustics. The German physicist and musician Ernst Chladni has been dubbed the 'father of acoustics' in recognition of his groundbreaking work in the early 18th century. He is most famous for his so-called 'Chladni plates'.

Lissajous' tuning forks. The 19th century saw a great enthusiasm for standardization in science and other areas. Music was no exception and performance pitch was of particular interest. Forks like these were designed by the French scientist Jules Lissajous in an attempt to set an international standard for concert pitch.

Herman von Helmholtz. Von Helmholtz was one of the greatest scientists of the 19th century and made an enormous contribution to acoustics. he is best remembered today for his resonators and his synthesizer.

Rudolph Koenig. Koenig devoted his life to designing and building acoustical instruments, greatly improving the field of acoustics. The Whipple's collection contains a number of his beautifully crafted instruments including his sound analyzer and his interferometer - the 'Trombone de Koenig'.

The monochord. The monochord is an ancient scientific and musical instrument, purportedly invented by the ancient Greek philosopher Pythagoras. The Whipple's collection includes a 19th-century example from the Wheatstone laboratory of King's College London.

Parabolic sound mirrors. Sound travels as a wave and as such can be reflected and focused. These 19th-century parabolic mirrors were used to demonstrate the wave nature of sound.

The siren. The siren, invented by Charles Cagniard de la Tour, was the first precision source of musical sound. Read about its invention and use here.

The automatic phonograph. In the 19th century there was a great effort to understand and mimic the human voice. This 'vowel sounder' was built to artificially reproduce the sound of the vowels of human speech.

Wheatstone's symphonium. Sir Charles Wheatstone was one of the finest physicists of the 19th century and was passionate about acoustics. He invented many musical instruments incuding this symphonium, a precursor to the English concertina.

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