The Phonautograph

In 1857, Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville patented a device for recording sound: A person spoke or sang into a barrel, causing a membrane of parchment to vibrate and a pig bristle to record a mark on a moving surface of glass or paper.

This was useful in studying the characteristics of sound, but a century and a half would pass before we had the technology to play back the recordings. In 2008, audio historians recovered Scott’s “phonautograms” from the French patent office and converted his waveforms into digital audio files.

The recording below was made on April 9, 1860. It’s the French folk song “Au clair de la lune,” recorded 28 years before Edison’s first wax cylinder.


You know the singularity has arrived when the robots start playing marimbas. Shimon, engineer Guy Hoffman’s robot musician, doesn’t play programmed music — it improvises in ensembles with human players, communicating with a “socially expressive head” and favoring musical ideas that are unlikely to be chosen by humans, so as to lead the performance in genuinely novel directions.

“The project, therefore, aims to combine human creativity, emotion, and aesthetic judgment with algorithmic computational capability of computers, allowing human and artificial players to cooperate and build off each other’s ideas,” notes the Georgia Tech Center for Music Technology, Shimon’s patron. “Unlike computer- and speaker-based interactive music systems, an embodied anthropomorphic robot can create familiar, acoustically rich, and visual interactions with humans.”

More at Georgia Tech.

Proof of Concept

England went mad for water lilies after an Amazon lily was named after Queen Victoria in 1837. The plants balked at English weather, but when gardener Joseph Paxton put one in an experimental conservatory it flowered in three months.

Ultimately the lilies inspired their own greenhouse: Impressed that their radiating ribs could support his daughter Annie, Paxton borrowed this “natural feat of engineering” to design a new conservatory with a ridge-and-furrow roof. In time this led to his masterpiece: the Crystal Palace of the Great Exhibition of 1851.

(From the Illustrated London News, Nov. 17, 1849.)

No Connection

In a garden in Ōtsuchi, in the Iwate prefecture on Japan’s east coast, stands an inoperative phone booth that’s nonetheless been used by more than 10,000 people since the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that killed 15,000 people and displaced hundreds of thousands more. The booth, known as the “Kaze no Denwa Box,” or Phone Booth of the Winds, was built by 69-year-old Itaru Sasaki so that local residents could communicate with loved ones who are dead or missing. Sasaki never connected the line, but callers still use the phone to speak to the departed, or write messages on a notepad, trusting that the wind will carry them to their intended recipients.

“In such a stricken environment, it might have been easy to perceive this disconnected phone booth as a whimsical art project incommensurate with the scale of loss experienced by the survivors for whom it was intended,” writes Ariana Kelly in Phone Booth (2015). “But quite the opposite has happened, and for the past several years there has been a steady stream of visitors to the booth, both from Ōtsuchi and other parts of Japan. Perhaps it provides a necessary terminus, a destination in a place marked by eradication. Perhaps one antidote to tragedy is useless beauty, or just uselessness.”


In 1857 The Leisure Hour tried to imagine life in London a century in the future, that is, in 1957. Many of the predictions seem sadly optimistic (for instance, the eradication of crime), but one in particular stands out:

I observed that from each of these district shops innumerable electric wires branched off in all directions, communicating with several houses in the district to which it belonged. Thus, no sooner did a house-keeper stand in need of any article than she could despatch the order instantaneously along the wire, and receive the goods by the very first railway carriage that happened to pass the store. Thus, she saved her time, and she lost no money, because all chaffering and cheapening, and that fencing between buyer and seller, which was once deemed a pleasure, had been long voted a disgraceful, demoralizing nuisance, and was done away with.

You can read the whole thing at the Public Domain Review.

Spy Kids

Barbie typewriters, sold worldwide by Mattel, have an undocumented built-in cryptographic capability. Pressing SHIFT and LOCK in combination with a particular trio of keys will engage any of four monoalphabetic substitution ciphers — once the feature is engaged, a keyed message will be printed in a transposed alphabet. Pressing a different combination of keys will put the machine into “decoding mode,” where keying a transposed message will print the deciphered text. So the same machine can be used to code and decode a message.

Details are at the Crypto Museum. These things were marketed to 5-year-olds. What else don’t we know about?

(Thanks, David.)

Turning Keys

Most piano music is written with the melody in the right hand, which seems unfair to left-handers. In 1998 left-handed Chris Seed determined to do something about it: He remortgaged his house and spent £28,000 on a “reversed” instrument built by Dutch fortepiano makers Poletti and Tuinman.

“At first Seed found it far harder to learn to play the instrument than he’d expected,” reports Rik Smits in The Puzzle of Left-Handedness. “It seemed as if he’d have to begin learning again from scratch. But once he got going, Seed’s brain turned out to be perfectly capable of converting everything he’d ever learned into a left-handed playing technique. Exactly what he’d hoped happened: all the pieces of the puzzle fell into place more or less automatically. Seed became at least as good a pianist as he was on a conventional piano and eventually he felt real delight in playing ‘as God intended.'”

Seed told the BBC, “The piano has transformed my playing, and I hope it will set a precedent for a future of left-handed pianists and uncover a whole new wealth of talent in the world of music.”

The Senster

In September 1970, cybernetic sculptor Edward Ihnatowicz unveiled a remarkable piece of robotic art at a Dutch science museum. Standing 8 feet high at the shoulder and “resembling a giraffe or dinosaur,” the Senster was basically a mechanical lobster claw mounted on a six-jointed neck actuated by quiet hydraulic rams. Using an array of microphones, the creature would turn its head in the direction of a sound, its speed proportional to the volume. If the direction of the sound source remained constant, the rest of the body would gradually follow, making the “animal” appear to home in on the sound. It would shy away from loud noises, and at overwhelming sound levels it would raise its neck vertically and “disdainfully” ignore further sounds until the volume came down. Doppler radar units enabled it to detect the motion of visitors; it was attracted toward small motions but “frightened of sudden movements.” All of this ran on 8K of core memory, but Ihnatowicz found that visitors quickly imputed an animal-like intelligence to the sculpture, and the atmosphere of the exhibit was much like that at a zoo:

In the quiet of the early morning the machine would be found with its head down, listening to the faint noise of its own hydraulic pumps. Then, if a girl walked by, the head would follow her, looking at her legs. Ihnatowicz describes his own first stomach-turning experience of the machine when he had just got it working: he unconsciously cleared his throat, and the head came right up to him as if to ask, ‘Are you all right?’ He also noticed a curious aspect of the effect the Senster had on people. When he was testing it he gave it various random patterns of motion to go through. Children who saw it operating in this mode found it very frightening, but no one was ever frightened when it was working in the museum with its proper software, responding to sounds and movement.

MIT roboticist Rodney Brooks later suggested that intelligent behavior can be achieved when sensory signals are mapped as directly as possible to motor signals through a large number of loosely coupled processes, with minimal internal processing. The Senster wasn’t updating an internal model of the world; it would simply turn its head toward a sound, but its behavior struck visitors as intelligent.

(Aleksandar Zivanovic, “The Technologies of Edward Ihnatowicz,” in Paul Brown et al., eds., White Heat Cold Logic: British Computer Art 1960-1980, 2008.)

The More the Airier?,_1921.png

In 1921 aeronautical engineer Giovanni Caproni designed a 100-seat transatlantic airliner with nine wings. With an empty weight of 14,000 kg, the Caproni Ca.60 Transaereo did tolerably well on its first test flight on Lake Maggiore, but it crashed on the second and never flew again. Caproni said, “So the fruit of years of work, an aircraft that was to form the basis of future aviation, all is lost in a moment. But one must not be shocked if one wants to progress. The path of progress is strewn with suffering.”

Nine wings isn’t even the record — that might belong to the “clever but somewhat dogmatic” Victorian engineer Horatio Phillips, who devised aircraft with up to 200 airfoils, basing them on a multi-vaned marine hydrofoil that he had designed. “But air and water do not behave similarly,” notes James Gilbert in The World’s Worst Aircraft (1976). “Air is compressible, while water, as you will know if you have ever belly-flopped into a swimming pool, hardly is. Multiple vanes lift well in water, poorly if at all in air.” Phillips spent £4,000 and gave up.

The Lycurgus Cup

Roman craftsmen made a remarkable coup around 300 A.D. — they produced a cup that is red when lit from behind and green when lit from the front. The effect occurs because the glass contains tiny proportions of gold and silver nanoparticles that reflect light of certain wavelengths. The workers themselves may have discovered the technique by accident, and may not have understood it fully; only a few pieces of 4th-century Roman glass display this “dichroic” property. Art historian Donald Harden called it “the most spectacular glass of the period, fittingly decorated, which we know to have existed.” It now resides in the British Museum.