Early European settlers brought firearm technology to waterfowl hunting in the Americas. In the late eighteenth century, market hunting of the goose and duck flocks of the Atlantic and Mississippi Flyways proliferated. Hundreds of bird species move along the Atlantic coast and from the headwaters of the Mississippi River in Minnesota and Ohio to the Gulf of Mexico, migrating between breeding grounds and wintering grounds, and in the nineteenth century, hunters began using sound to draw down these passing birds.
This is a set of 16 Helmholtz resonators. Made from sections of brass that were spun on a lathe, they are wonderfully light and easy to hold. Helmholtz designed them to demonstrate his theory that all vowel and musical sounds are composed of combinations of simple, pure notes (Helmholtz’s “Theory of Timbre”). He correctly observed that musical sounds, particularly the higher tones, are often perceived as a single mass of sound.
Leon Chisholm (Materiality of Musical Instruments, Deutsches Museum)
The standard interface of pianos, organs, and other keyboard instruments, with its pattern of twelve interlocking keys, is a compromise by design. The twelvefold division of the scale into fixed pitches has both shaped and served Western music since medieval times. Yet the notes of this scale form pitch relationships that, for the most part, only approximate the intervals of the natural harmonic series. Over the centuries, scientists, inventors, instrument makers, composers, and musicians have explored myriad ways of accommodating and even overcoming this discrepancy. One strategy for mitigating the limitations of the standard keyboard’s twelve-tone octaves has been to add extra notes to create within the keyboard’s scale microtonal divisions, or intervals smaller than a semitone (the distance between two adjacent notes on the piano). Consideration of some notable early modern examples of microtonal keyboards, including those associated with Nicola Vicentino and Gioseffo Zarlino, can help to contextualize later developments in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, when microtonal instruments served a variety of aesthetic, philosophical, and scientific ends.
The Smithsonian's National Museum of American History houses literally millions of objects which preserve and illustrate our nation's rich history. Among the many stories that these objects tell are the ways that Americans have learned about science. This site is designed to help students and teachers explore a unique and beautiful collection of instruments used to teach Acoustics - the science of sound. These historic instruments were designed to be engaging and to challenge students to think in new ways about the physical world.
Koenig’s flame analyser was, next to the sound synthesizer, one of the clearest expressions of Hermann von Helmholtz’s theory that complex sounds were made up of a spectrum of elemental or pure tones. The adjustable resonators covering a range of 65 notes from sol1 to mi5 (96–1,280 Hz), could each be rendered visible with a connection to a manometric flame capsule. The resonators were connected to a gas-filled capsule with a rubber tube. If activated, the distinctive pattern would appear in the rotating mirror.
This specific array of precision tuning forks are highly-specialized experimental forks that relate directly to Koenig’s long-standing disagreement with Helmholtz on the nature of combination tones. Some of them date back to Koenig's display at the 1876 Philadelphia exposition.
The sound synthesiser was Helmholtz’s clearest instrumental expression of his theory of timbre, or sound quality. Whereas his spherical resonators dissected compound sounds (vowels or musical sounds) into elemental frequencies, the synthesiser did this by building up complex sounds from simple frequencies. In 1857 he went to the instrument maker Friedrich Fessel of Cologne to turn this idea into reality. The initial instruments used a combination of electrically driven tuning forks, resonators and piano keys to synthesise compound sounds.