Wheatstone's symphonium: a precision instrument

Sir Charles Wheatstone XR  (1802-1875) was an important 19th century physicist and inventor. He had a lifelong fascination with music and acoustics and invented this beautiful instrument, the symphonium (patented in 1829), which was the precursor to his better known invention, the English concertina.

Wheatstone's symphonium
Image 1 Wheatstone's symphonium, late 19th century. Image © the Whipple Museum (Wh.5975).
Sir Charles Wheatstone
Image 2 Sir Charles Wheatstone. Image from Wikimedia Commons [http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Main_Page].


The symphonium (Image 1) is similar to the mouth organ insofar as the sound is generated by blowing over thin metal reeds. The symphonium allows the player to sound all twelve notes of the chromatic scale G . The main difference is that on the symphonium the player blows through only one hole, finding the individual notes by pressing delicately engineered small buttons on either side.


Charles Wheatstone (Image 2) was born in Gloucestershire, England, in 1802, the son of a shoe maker called William. The family moved to London in 1806 where William's brother (also called Charles) ran a musical instrument shop. Charles the younger was thus exposed to music and the science of acoustics from an early age, and he maintained a lifelong fascination with both areas. At the age of sixteen he had invented his first musical instrument and he filed his first patent on "Construction of Wind Instruments" in 1829.

Wheatstone went on to become one of the most famous scientists of the 19th century, but not because of his work in acoustics. Instead, he is most well known for his work in electricity as the co-inventor of the telegraph. He also conceived of the telephone and the microphone, although his designs were somewhat different from those that we know today - Wheatstone's devices transmitted sound through the vibrations of rods instead of converting them to electrical signals.

King's College, London

Wheatstone was a brilliant scientist but painfully shy in front of large audiences, which made him a very poor lecturer. Nevertheless, in 1834 King's College London headhunted Wheatstone to be the first Professor of Experimental Philosophy in their new experimental sciences laboratory (one of the very first in the world, predating Cambridge's Cavendish Laboratory by some forty years). Wheatstone continued in this post until his death in 1875, leaving most of his scientific writings and instruments to King's who renamed the laboratory after him in his honor. In 1986 the Whipple purchased a number of 19th century acoustical items from King's college, and these form the backbone of our acoustics collection.

Torben Rees

Torben Rees, 'Wheatstone's symphonium: a precision instrument', Explore Whipple Collections, Whipple Museum of the History of Science, University of Cambridge, 2009 [http://www.hps.cam.ac.uk/whipple/explore/acoustics/wheatstonessymphonium/, accessed 29 May 2017]

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