Once upon a time in 1885, Welsh singer, songwriter, scientist, and philanthropist Margaret Watts Hughes accidentally invented a method of turning her voice into images.
Hughes explained her invention, the eidophone, and her image-making process in an article for Century Magazine in 1891:
In 1885, while seeking means to indicate readily the intensities of vocal sounds, I first met with these [voice] figures, and, owing to their variety both in form and production, they have since absorbed much of my attention. The apparatus I have employed I call the eidophone. This is very simple. It consists merely of an elastic membrane, such as thoroughly flexible soft sheet-rubber, tightly stretched over the mouth of a receiver of any form, into which receiver the voice is introduced by a wide-mouthed tube of convenient shape. In some cases the receiver may be dispensed with, and the membrane be stretched across the open end of the tube itself.
My first experiments were made with sand, lycopodium powder, or the two substances mixed. I then tried for the production of voice-figures, flooding the disk of the eidophone with a thin layer of liquid ; e.g. water or milk. Upon singing notes of suitable pitch through the tube, not too forcibly, beautiful crispations appear upon the surface of the liquid, which vary with every change of tone. A note sung too forcibly causes the liquid to rise in, a shower of spray, the movements of which are too rapid to be readily followed by the eye. To facilitate observation denser liquids may be used. By using such liquids as colored glycerin particularly beautiful effects may be obtained. Subsequently I found that by employing moistened powder of different consistencies yet another description of figures appears. The earliest result of my experiments in this material shows centers of motion from which radiations diverge.
By varying the sound of her voice and the materials and methods used to capture it, different patterns emerged.
If we dig a bit deeper into the process, we find greater complexity. Sophie B. Herrick did just that in Visible Sound – Comment [Century Magazine 42, 40 (1891)]:
These voice-flowers are not the simple visual forms corresponding with the vibrations of the air set in motion by the voice. The waves generated in the closed bowl of the eidophone are reflected again and again from the sides of the vessel. The volume of air inclosed has its own rate of vibration; the stretched membrane has also its own rate, which in turn is modified by the character and thickness of the paste spread upon it. Added to these are molecular forces of cohesion and adhesion between the particles of paste, and again between the paste and the membrane. The form which grows into shape is the resultant of all these complicated forces, and, in some instances, new elements of change have been added. A glass plate is placed on top of the vibrating membrane and moved over it. We have a new body introduced with its proper rate of vibration, besides a mechanical motion further to complicate the problem.
According to an article in MIT’s The Net Advance of Physics Weblog, Hughes’ “flower-like forms” were rediscovered in the 1960s by Swiss researcher Hans Jenny, who went on to coin the term cymatics to describe acoustic effects of sound wave phenomena. However it appears as if Jenny was only familiar with the black and white reproductions of Hughes works as published in her Century article.
The larger color works works were thought to be lost(!) but were found in 2016 by the staff of the Cyfarthfa Castle Museum, located in Merthyr Tydfil, Wales, while digging through their archives. Taken as a whole, Hughes’ work has a foot in two camps —as part of the history and study of the physics of sound, and as part of the history of art. These works were displayed as such during her lifetime [footnote 1].
One can imagine that the Surrealists would have been quite taken with these voice-figures, automatism sans hands, and I find them quite beautiful and striking as works of visual art that do not fit the tidy androcentric narrative of history, art or otherwise (see Hilma af Klint for a similarly jarring example).
Here’s Hughes on her ‘flower-forms’:
…I have gone on singing into shape these peculiar forms, and stepping out of doors, have seen their parallels in the flowers, ferns, and trees around me; and again, as I have watched the little heaps in the formation of the floral figures gather themselves up and then shoot out their petals, just as a flower springs from the swollen bud’ the hope has come to me that these humble experiments may afford some suggestions in regard to nature’s production of her own beautiful forms.
‘Singing into shape these peculiar forms’ being among the most enthralling string of words I’ve encountered. And here’s novelist Emilie Barrington describing these works in 1889:
“…are more like, perhaps, what a dream might make out of the impressions left by Nature, perfectly drawn designs of shell-like forms, photographically precise renderings of shapes of which the exact originals were never seen by human eye on sea or land; such things as ‘Alice in Wonderland’ might have come upon, had she tumbled down to the bottom of the sea.”
I recommend reading Picturing a Voice: Margaret Watts Hughes and the Eidophone by Rob Mullender-Ross on The Public Domain Review and his more in-depth work, Divine Agency: Bringing to light the voice figures of Margaret Watts-Hughes (PDF), for a more complete picture of these fascinating works.
Here’s a lovely video on the Cyrfarthfa Castle Museum’s Margaret Watts Hughes collection:
1. From Mullender-Ross’s Divine Agency:
In a letter to the editor of The Spectator in 1889, novelist Emilie Barrington writes enthusiastically of a visit she paid to Watts-Hughes at the orphanage she ran in Islington in North London. As a first-hand account of the production of impression figures it is valuable on its own – but just as fascinating is the breathless description of the way these works are displayed: ‘Instead of blinds or curtains drawn across the lower panes of the windows, there are wonderful designs in colour; strange, beautiful things – suggesting objects in Nature, but which are certainly neither exact repetitions nor imitations of anything in Nature’ (Barrington, 1889).