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Image 1: Principal of the Phonodeik Sound Waves: Their Shape and Speed p.11

Dayton Clarence Miller was a professor of Physics at the Case School of Applied Science who had a strong interest in the components of the tonal quality of sound. Miller possessed an extensive flute collection that included instruments made out of several different media. The scientist’s desire to know which medium created the highest quality sound led him in 1908 to develop an early sonograph called the Phonodeik—‘seeing sound.’ Miller claimed that all other contemporary devices were not sensitive enough to vibrations and changes in pressure as well as suffered from noise issues (Miller, 1937, preface). Until the invention of electronic oscillators, the Phonodeik was one of the chief means of converting sound waves into visual images and thus of analyzing all manner of sounds from musical instruments to human speech. The Phonodeik codifies sound into a technical image that can be understood through mathematics. Instead of a gestalt experience of sound that is decoded by the brain through the ear, sound is filtered through the Phonodeik and transferred into light and image. Crary’s (1990) argument that photography helped to change the human consciousness finds weight when considering the Phonodeik. Optical devices were not just instruments of visuality, but rationalizations for changing the human faculty of sight. Therefore the Phonodeik was a development that changed the way that humans perceived sound. The observer is changed by the technique of ‘listening’ through image.

Sound Waves

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Image 2: Photographs of sound waves created by the Phonodeik Sound Waves: Their Shape and Speed

Miller was interested in studying the different parts of a sound wave: amplitude (loudness), frequency (tone), and shape (timber)--which is by far the most subjective of the measurements. Image 1 displays the principals and aspects of a Phonodeik. There was no standardized physical object, but the principals behind the design remained the same. 'H' represents the horn that captures sound and funnels it to a glass diaphragm ('D') that vibrates with the noise. One of the major design flaws comes with the horn. As all physical objects vibrate and therefore make sound, the users of this device would have to make sure that the horn they choose has a deeper fundamental tone than the phenomenon they are studying. The middle of the diaphragm is attached by silk threads to a pulley and a spring ('S'). The spring keeps the silk taunt at all times, and the pulley will move a mirror ('M') that is attached by a steel spindle when the diaphragm vibrates. 'P' represents a pin hole of focused light that is fed through a lens ('L') to hit the mirror. When the mirror would move, it would reflect a moving beam of light onto photo paper or 'film' to capture the sound waves. The only portion of the device that was typically ‘black boxed’ was the area that holds the material substrate, photo paper, due to its sensitivity to light (Miller, pp. 10-11).

Changing from Sound to Image

The motivations behind embodying sound via the image imply that the resolution of a perceivable difference (Fechner’s law of 'touch difference') is sharper in terms of the eye as compared to the ear. Therefore the conversion of sound waves into an image is an attempt to extend the sense of sight to gain in-depth understanding of how changes in pressure create audible sound. D.C. Miller based his analysis of sound on Ohm’s Law of Tonal quality and Fourier’s Theorem (Miller, p.8). Known as harmonic analysis, a simple tone can be split into a series of sine curves when sound is displayed graphically. Composite tones—sounds that involve multiple tones—are representations of the harmonic elements within each unit or sound wave. Therefore they are not perfect sine curves but rather complex curves.

Miller believed that mathematics can be applied to assess tonal elements and quality. Flusser’s essays, "Non-Thing 1" and "Non-Thing 2", argue that society places a high priority on information and we will eventually inhabit a bit-like, atomic-like universe. Machines begin to do the work of transforming nature into information. Sound must be objectified before Miller could locate analyzable and quantifiable information. The photo paper as an artifact is secondary to the waves produced.

Therefore the information captured by the Phonodiek can be segmented in time. While the technology is analogue because it produces a continuous image over time, similar to a film, the output for a Phonodeik can be split up into discrete units: sine curves. The main paradigm of that time period was that media is serial and should be read and consumed in that order. But with the digitization of information, seriality played less of a role. The Phonodeik captured a cacophony of sounds that happened simultaneously. Miller desired to parse out the different tones.


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Image 3: Fludd's dynamic triangles with the sun in the middle linking harmonics and light Deep Time of Media p.106

The interplay between catoptrics and dioptrics as discussed by Zielinski (2006) is extensive and elucidating in the Phonodeik. The artifact translates sound waves from a dioptric medium, the air, and transfers them to a catoptric medium, paper. Because photo paper is catoptric and reflects light it is able to record the sound through chemical properties. But the information captured, waves, are dioptric because they are a 'lens' that allows humans to conceptualize sound.

Image 1: displays the duel role of light within the device itself. The pinhole of light ('P'), is focused first through a lens, bounces off of the mirror and on to the photographic paper. The source of light is not identified and is reminiscent of an omnipotent power shining light down on the earth, or lumen. This light source is focused through a dioptric lens and then bounces off the dioptric mirror—lumen as a reflection of the source lux. Finally the light does hit the aforementioned catropic material substrate. The mirror’s vibrations and movement in light connects the world of sound and sight.

The Phonodeik can be seen as a remediation of the ideas of Robert Fludd who “sought cohesion for the strands of natural philosophy... in a single idea that was not overtly articulated in things themselves but constituent their hidden structure and driving force" (Zielinski, p.102). By playing a monochord to create harmonic series, he was able to utilize geometry and arithmetic to examine the mathematical relations of music. Fludd drew a connection between musical intervals, small ratios of whole numbers, to the Pythagorean doctrine. As seen in Image 3, Fludd had a unifying theory of the universe that involved the world being composed of two intersecting triangles--a sign of the holy trinity and therefore the divine--with the sun in the center. These represent the divine and the material in the world. Here light plays a major role in understanding the harmony of life. Also Fludd and later Miller reject Aristotle's notion that understanding music can be done only through intuition because the ear has limited capabilities of discernment. The debate between division of musical tones is still a modern issue with the computerization of sound for musical production (Zielinski, pp. 104-109).


Crary, J. (1990). Techniques of the observer: On vision and modernity in the nineteenth century. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Flusser, V. (1999). The shape of things: A philosophy of design. London: Reaktion Books.

Miller, C. W. (1937). Sound waves: Their shape and speed. New York: The MacMillan Company.

Zielinski, S. (2006). Deep time of the media: Toward an Archaeology of hearing and seeing by technical means. Stanford: Standford University Press.