By Paul Elliman

Even you and I have a share in any claims to the invention of long-distance sound propagation of a human voice.

Shouts and calls, cries and loud hailing, are almost as old as the hills. Or as old as the valleys that help sound to carry. The Scandinavian kulning, for example, a yodelled herding call sent hundreds of meters across high mountain pastures, often sung by female shepherds and cattle herders. Far away, the grazing animals respond with their own lowing calls. Starting to move, their tuned bells signal the sound of the herd moving down the mountain towards the home farm.

In Venice the gondolieri project a long, floated signal cry, either premi or stali—going left or going right—extended by a rising eeeee, as in stali-eeeee. It sweeps across a canal intersection long before the gondola gets there. The word crescending (as far as I know it doesn’t exist) seems made for the Venetian boatmen, from the Latin crescere, to grow.

But how did the human voice become an object not of the body; a reflection that can be controlled, or even give the impression of emerging sentience? Cut away from previously fixed relationships to a specific body, place or situation, human speech has been released like the ‘wandering voice’ in Wordsworth’s poem To the Cuckoo, heard in the trees and the distant hills as if embodied by them rather than the creature that it once belonged to.

The re-embodied voice, which barely registers today beyond being just another mode of human communication, is the product of a collective 19th century focus on mechanical devices that can record or transmit vocal messages. Its future possibilities were more or less covered by two simultaneous inventions. Alexander Graham Bell’s 1876 telephone, and Thomas Edison’s 1877 wax cylinder phonograph. The human voice sent across indefinite space or recorded and exchanged as a parcel of inscribed sonic information.  

One of the earliest accounts of the telephone’s invention was published only three years after Bell was awarded the first patent for it. The Telephone, the Microphone and the Phonograph (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1879), by Théo Du Moncel, an early enthusiast for electrically driven  machinery. The book’s opening sentence now seems to speak from a virtual midpoint between what we know about the telephone today and a cosmic prehistory entailing where it came from.

Moncel writes: “The telephone is merely an instrument adapted for the transmission of sound to a distance, an idea as old as the world itself.”

Given his knowledge of electricity I assume Moncel was thinking beyond anthropic origins to the role of ancient Earth sciences, the physical and chemical basis of our planet and its atmosphere. But with a respectful nod also to the application of spatial acoustics in ancient Greek and Roman social life. Open air amphitheatres were designed to optimise acoustic sharpness. Performers were trained to project their voices for maximum clarity. In this context he may have even considered the Greek and Roman literature of mythological voices. The element quicksilver, known to the Romans as mercury, was believed to give voice, and with it the breath of life, to inanimate objects. Ovid tells the tale of Galatea, a female statue brought to life by Pygmalion. The story had many parallels, with Daedalus also said to use alchemical methods to bring his statues to speaking life. Ovid’s Echo and Narcissus extends the idea to the personification of both a voice and a body’s reflection.

As a punishment for trickery, Echo’s use of speech was restricted by the goddess Juno. Echo, as her name implies, can now only repeat the endings of things spoken to her. After being painfully rejected by Narcissus, Echo’s body withers away until only her voice remains. A reverberation that at first seems to occur without agency of her own, Echo is shown to humorously and even sexually imbue her echoed replies with an expression of actual thoughts and feelings.

Narcissus, meanwhile, dies under a spell cast from his mirror image in the pool where he first encountered Echo.

As a reflection of the body’s image, and the echo of its voice, Ovid’s characters invoke a complex of ideas about human features living and non-living in fragmented forms detached from the body. Spectral voices, mirror reflections and dark shadows would become profound and controversial figures of curiosity between the Middle Ages and the early modern period of the seventeenth century. The projection of a body’s shadow is drawn from physical reality yet at the same time entirely withdrawn from its living qualities. Dante refers to the many people he encounters in the Commedia as spectres or shadows. O shadows vain!  he says, embracing only air, and is himself gripped with fear when noticing how the diaphanous body of Virgil walking alongside him casts no shadow.

Giorgio Agamben has written about the fascination among medieval philosophers for mirrors, and the ’special being’ of the ghostly images they saw in them. Images that are "neither substance nor place nor continuous reality, and can be generated at any moment,” prompting a direct comparison to the being of a voice, another kind of spectral sign, as difficult to get hold of as a reflection in the mirror.  

Mathematician and music theorist Marin Mersenne described an echo as "like light hitting a mirror." Mersenne was first to record the speed of sound as it travelled through air in the year of 1640. A calculation shown more recently to be only marginally in error. Mersenne is mainly remembered today for his work with acoustics, notably, in the context of future early telephone mechanics, the harmonics of vibrating strings. He was also fascinated by echoes. Incorporating them into his work with sound propagation Mersenne proposed a discipline of “Echometry,” listing its initial categories of study as (1) echoes that could respond up to twenty times, with the final repetition louder than the initial ones; (2) portable echo chambers, like portable mirrors; (3) echoes that would answer in Spanish what was cried out in French; (4) echoes that would store the sound and reflect it back only at certain times of day or night.  

Mersenne is associated with ‘Speculative Musick’; described at the time by the English composer Thomas Morley as “that kind of music which seeketh the causes, properties and natures of sounds.” Mersenne’s comparison of the sound of the viola to the human voice inspired his younger namesake, viol player and composer Marin Marais (1656–1728) to embody the suggestion of a relationship between voice and tuned strings in his composition Les Voix Humaines.1

The sensual effect encompassing both the controlled phrasing of the viol’s musical song and the stirring of invisible air from the human vocal chords was a focus for seventeenth century Anglo-Welsh poet Katherine Philips (1632-1664), comparing voices in intimate conversation to a "‘heaving’ of sympathetic strings in music's 'mystic union...’”

But when that Look is drest in Words, ‘tis like / The mystick pow’r of Musick’s unison; /  Which when the finger doth one Viol strike, / The other’s string heaves to reflection.  
–Katherine Philips (1631-1664) ‘To my Lucasia, in defence of declared Friendship’

Mersenne believed the sound of the voice was connected to a natural language more analogous to things and other creatures of the world. This is a feature of his ideas about music as  universal language of sound, able to appeal equally to the sensory instincts and feelings of all living bodies. (Mace 70) During the seventeenth century, the human voice becomes a focus for studies of sound phenomena. Including, as should be no surprise in the realm of something as spectral as speech, an interest in the presence of ghostly voices alive and drifting in the air. Ghosts entered 16th century English drama via translations of Seneca. Shakespeare was not the first to include them, though his ghosts are thought of as being integrated more fully into the dramatic structure of the plays. Many other supernatural manifestations of spirits and apparitions inhabit Shakespeare’s work, often with voices, and difficult requirements of the actors. For Ariel’s entrance in The Tempest (c. 1611) the actor must follow the prompt Ariel enters invisible; the character is a disembodied voice alive and drifting in the air of the island.

George Sandys (1578–1644) completed the first English translation of Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” in 1626, with influential commentaries on the text. Sandys (pronounced Sands) draws on Francis Bacon’s scientific writings about the nature of sound, including a discussion of echoes, with an example heard by Bacon in a chapel near Paris that prompts him to form a comparison between visual and aural reflection, “For it is every Returne weaker, and more shady.”  Sandys extends this thought further in his commentary on Ovid’s story of Echo, “the image of the voice so often rendered, is as that of the face reflected from one glasse to another and shady than the former.” The phrase is from a Latin use of imago, sometimes imago vocis (voice image) for the word echo, it precedes our primarily visual use of the word image. The phrase seems almost commonplace by the time Wordsworth echoes it in another of his poems, “The Power of Sound,” (1835) "Ye Voices, and ye Shadows / And Images of voice, to hound and horn.”  

Robert Hooke, author of possibly the earliest document in which the transmission of voice to a distance is clearly formulated, is also a key figure in this story. Hooke (1635 –1703) was a scientist whose boundless interests, like those of Mersenne, fell into many overlapping categories. As Surveyor for the City of London, he worked with Christopher Wren on the rebuilding of St Paul’s Cathedral after the Fire of London in 1666. Closely involved with many aspects of the fire’s aftermath, Hooke even salvaged ideas from the physical residue of the city-destroying fire. He established the study of schlieren or streaks, shape-shifting optical smudges in liquid, glass, smoke and steam, proposing accurate explanations for heat haze, stratified flows and convection in fluids, mirages and the twinkling of stars.

His diaries and published writings record his obsession with acoustics and communication, and devices to assist the eyes and the ears. In his book Micrographia, Hooke briefly mentions an experiment that conveyed “the lowest whispers” across a furlong’s distance (roughly 200 meters), and that by means of an “extended wire” the voice could be carried much further. This is often interpreted as the first recorded use of a string telephone, though Hooke was working with a collection of sound instruments known as otacousticons. Originating in Persia they were devised “to improve the sense of hearing.” In his diary entry for April 2, 1668, Samuel Pepys writes “I did try the use of the otacousticon which was only a great glass bottle broken at the bottom. Putting the neck to my eare; and there I did plainly hear the dashing of the oares of the boats in the Thames.” Hooke’s Mersenne-influenced description of the "transmission of sound over a wire or string” anticipates the telegraph by two centuries. Measuring the rate of the vibrations along an extended string he noted “two hundred seventy-two per second of time” and that it sounded the key of G, which he verified on a musical pipe.  

The reconstructed St Paul’s Cathedral brought with it a phonic footnote to the pre-history of electromagnetic voice propagation. Hooke calculated the catenary curves for the dome of the new building, part of which resulted in the famous whispering gallery. Hooke’s sound and vocal studies involved a research of the building’s echoes. A visitor today can do exactly as Hooke would have done, testing how well sound travels in the dome by whispering a message along its curve, or counting out the four echoes produced from a single clap of the hands.

Vocal transmission across St Paul’s whispering gallery was investigated more precisely in 1878, by John William Strutt (Lord Rayleigh, Astronomer Royal). Rayleigh had noticed how “the whisper seems to creep around the gallery horizontally along that arc toward which the whisperer faces.” As Hooke also knew, the kind of sound wave that holds to a curved surface occurs in optics and astronomy as well as acoustics. Rayleigh visualised the movement of the wave by registering the directed sound of a whistle as it passed through the flickering flame of a candle. Despite the advantage of more recent technology, it seems exactly like something Hooke would have done in his own time. 

Paul Elliman is an artist based in London. His work, which follows language through many of its social and technological guises, has been exhibited internationally, including “Century City,” the inaugural exhibition for Tate Modern, London (2001), Platform, Seoul Bienniale, South Korea  2009; “Ecstatic Alphabets/Heaps of Language” at MoMA, NYC (2012);  KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin (2017), and the Liverpool Biennial (2018).

1.  Marin Marais: Pièces de viole du second livre 1701 - Jordi Savall, Anne Gallet, Hopkinson Smith;  Astrée – AS 4, France 1975

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Founded in 2020, Three Fold is an independent quarterly based in Detroit that presents exploratory points of view on arts, culture, and society in addition to original works in various media, including visual art, literature, film and the performing arts. We solicit and commission contributions from artists, writers, and activists around the world. Three Fold is a publication of Trinosophes Projects, a 501(c)3 non-profit organization.