The vibration microscope is an electromagnetically-driven adaptation by Hermann von Helmholtz (1821-1894) of the earlier optical comparator by Jules Antoine Lissajous (1822-1880). The device allows one to determine the frequency of a tuning fork or other vibrating object with respect to a fork of known frequency, by way of Lissajous figure analysis.
Invented by John Shore in 1711, the tuning fork was initially used by musicians. After Chladni’s studies of its vibrations, however, it was also extensively employed by acousticians, who praised the purity of its sound. Hermann von Helmholtz, especially, based his experiments with beats, combination tones, and simple tones on tuning forks attached to resonators that enhanced their suitability for experimentation.
This set of 3 tuning forks, each mounted on its’ own resonator box, was made in Paris between about 1870 and 1900. The tuning forks were each milled from a single blank of fine steel and were then precisely tuned to produce a single, specific, tone. The resonator boxes that they are bolted to are wood, made from the same spruce often used in stringed musical instruments. Spruce wood is naturally responsive to sound vibrations and is the ideal material for this application.
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.