The question of who invented the telephone in the 19th century seems straightforward enough to any grade school student — Alexander Graham Bell. However, the subject has been a matter of considerable debate in recent years, with proponents of Elisha Gray, Antonio Meucci, Philipp Reis, Amos Dolbear, and several others jockeying for public notoriety and hoping to “officially” change the history books.
One of the most bizarre items concerning the telephone has to do with Robert Hooke, FRS (July 18, 1635 — March 3, 1703) an Oxford-educated natural philosopher and Fellow of the Royal Society — basically a polymath whose theoretical and experimental work helped bring about Europe’s scientific revolution.
Hooke is known for his law of elasticity (Hooke’s Law) and for being “the father of microscopy” (Hooke coined the term “cell” to describe the basic unit of life). He worked with Robert Boyle and built the vacuum pumps used in Boyle’s experiments that led to the formulation of Boyle’s law (i.e., for a fixed amount of an ideal gas kept at a fixed temperature, P [pressure] and V [volume] are inversely proportional — while one increases, the other decreases). Hooke was a noted architect, built telescopes that were used to observe the rotations of Mars and Jupiter, and was an early proponent of the theory of evolution as a result of a study of microscopic fossils.
He investigated light refraction, deduced the wave theory of light, and was the first scientist to suggest that matter expands when heated and that air is made of small atomic particles separated by relatively large distances. He also managed to discover that gravity follows an inverse square law, and this governs planetary motion, an idea which was subsequently worked out in greater detail by Isaac Newton, who was an enemy of Hooke (and who failed to credit his work on gravitation).
In other words, Hooke was one of the most brilliant minds of the 17th century.
Which makes the following passage by him all the more remarkable and, in a way, disconcerting.
In 1665 Hooke published a book entitled “Micrographia, or some Physiological Descriptions of Minute Bodies made by magnifying glasses with Observations and Inquiries Thereupon.”
Hooke’s book contains descriptions of minute bodies made by magnifying glasses and primitive, proto microscopes (as indicated in the book’s title), together with “Observations and Inquiries” on them.
In the book’s Preface, Hooke asserts that the lowest whispers, by certain means (which he does not reveal in the text), may be heard at the distance of a furlong (equal to one-eighth of a mile, which is 220 yards, 660 feet or 201.168 meters). He also claims that he knew a way by which it is easy to hear anyone speak through a wall three feet thick, and that by means of an “extended wire”, sound may be conveyed to a very great distance, almost in an instant!
Hooke’s exact (archaic) wording and spelling are as follows:
“And as Glasses have highly promoted our seeing, so ‘tis not improbable, but that there may be found many Mechanical Inventions to improve our other Senses, of hearing, smelling, tasting, touching. ‘Tis not impossible to hear a _whisper_ a _furlongs_ distance, it having been already done; and perhaps the nature of the thing would not make it more impossible, though that furlong should be ten times multiply’d. And though some famous Authors have affirm’d it impossible to hear through the _thinnest plate_ of _Muscovy-glass_; yet I know a way, by which ‘tis easie enough to hear one speak through a _wall a yard thick_. It has not been yet thoroughly examin’d, how far _Otocousticons_ may be improv’d, nor what other wayes there may be of _quickning_ our hearing, or _conveying_ sound through _other bodies_ then the _Air_: for that that it not the only _medium_, I can assure the Reader, that I have, by the help of a _distended wire_, propagated the sound to a very considerable distance in an _instant_, or with as seemingly quick a motion as that of light, at least, incomparably swifter then that, which at the same time was propagated through the Air; and this not only in a straight line, or direct, but in one bended in many angles…”
One wonders what Hooke is talking about. Did he invent the telephone?
Not exactly, but close. In turns out that, in additional to all of his other great scientific discoveries, he also conducted, from 1664 to 1685, some little-known experiments in acoustics and sending sound through a wire. These involved wooden frames on hilltops, earphones, stretched wire, and cylinders.
In his diary, for example, he wrote: “We shall tomorrow make a good experiment of the velocity in the vibrations of a sounding string, in which I shall acquaint you by the next.”
In a later entry, Hooke notes his amazement that sound, traveling over a string, can be made to go around a corner. These experiments demonstrated that “the number of vibrations of an extended string, made in a determinate time requested to give a certain tone or note. [By this] it was found that a wire making two hundred seventy two vibrations in one second of time sounded G Sol Re Vt in the Scale of all Musick”.
Another later sort of music phone was the “magic lyre” of Wheatstone in 1831. He demonstrated that by connecting the sounding-boards of two musical instruments by means of a thin rod of wood, a tune played upon one will be faithfully reproduced by the other. The sounding-boards of Wheatstone's musical instruments suggested use of a more convenient sounding-box, and it was soon found that a stretched cord would do equally well to transmit a sound from one box to another. So very early on physicists were aware that sound could be transmitted over a considerable distance by a simple mechanical device. Although several patents appeared, the idea of sending voice over a vibrating wire was relegated to the toy known as the “lover’s telegraph,” or two parchment membranes stretched on rings connected at the center by a silk thread.
However, later in the 19th century, “mechanical phone” systems — essentially elaborate versions of “two cans and a string” were actually used in areas not served by Bell’s phone system (and which evaded any of Bell’s patents). Some were complete exchanges with operator switchboards, such as Lemuel Mellett’s “Pulsion Telephone” invented in 1888 for use on American railways.
A newspaper article from 1889 reads as follows: “The Pulsion Telephone was a mechanical telephone which really seems as if it might rival the ordinary telephone, at any rate for moderate distances, has been recently exhibited on a 3 miles line, between Finchley-road and Hendon, on the Midland Railway [Editor’s Note: near London], under the name of the ‘Pulsion Telephone.’ It is the invention of Mr. Lemuel Mellett, of Boston, U.S. [Editor’s Note: Actually he was from Newton and then Somerville, Massachusetts.] The principle seems to be to have on the resounding-plate a number of small coiled springs held at one end only; these respond to various harmonic vibrations, and the vibration of the wire is taken up and reinforced, giving great distinctness of utterance. It seems not to matter much whether the wire is twisted or passes through loose earth. One peculiarity is that it can be tapped at any point by resting a hat upon the wire, a useful quality in case of accident, though evidently unfitting it for private messages.”
As for Hooke back in the 17th century, he used his new-found acoustic knowledge to build various musical instruments. In September 1672 he noted in his diary that he had invented an easy way for “a musical cylinder with pewter tips pinched between cylindrick rings” to transmit sound — a sort of musical phone, since there is no evidence he was attempting to transmit voice. Hooke did, however, invent a large horn-like ‘ear’ a “large conical tin receiver for the magnifying of sounds; which being tried was found to make words softly uttered at a distance to be heard distinctly; whereas they could not be so heard without this instrument,” as recounted by the Royal Society.
200 years later, Thomas Edison reproduced Hooke’s Ear Trumpet experiments, calling his device a Megaphone. He combined two of these (one for each ear) with a speaking trumpet. It is reported that a person yelling as loud as possible could be heard up to two miles away and that a whisper could be heard at a distance of up to 1,000 feet.
Hooke was deeply influenced by his research into acoustics and the physical nature of sound. In many of his writings he talks about vibration, pulses, and musical analogies in his attempt to account for all of the universe’s physical phenomena, which he felt operated on the principles of “harmony” and “dissonance”. This is probably because that in the period just preceding the proto-scientific era of Hooke, there was thought to be a close relationship between musical acoustics and magic. The “magical” qualities of music could be made empirically discernable via such phenomena as sympathetic vibration — the ability of a vibrating string to set into motion another string at a distance. To a 16th century observer, sympathetic vibration was obviously an example of music’s occult powers. It was believed by natural philosophers of the days that a similar kind of sympathetic resonance took place when the human ear perceives music and certain “affections” could be “set into motion” in the listener. Pythagoras, after all, looked up the human body as a sort of extended monochord composed of various harmonious proportions.
Even to a more scientific fellow of the 17th century such as Hooke, a violin string vibrating in sympathetic resonance to another one was called a “magicall string”. Historians of science have shown us that the vibrating string was not just a heuristic mental device for Hooke, it was a fundamental model by which to understand and explain other natural phenomena such as magnetism, light and gravity.
Today, of course, our view of the world is entirely different. Telephones are electric and the Music of the Spheres is digitized and on a CD.Richard Grigonis is Executive Editor of TMC (News - Alert)�s IP Communications Group. To read more of Richard�s articles, please visit his columnist page.
Edited by Michelle Robart