The Physiophone - Music For The Deaf
By H Gernaback
When I was sixteen I secured an old-fashioned Pathé phonograph of the
cylindrical record type. You know the kind that was in vogue years ago.
Being much interested in electricity in those days, the thought occurred
to me, the same as it occurred to thousands of others, namely, why not
transmit the music electrically by putting a sensitive microphone
somewhere on the phonograph and thus get the music at a distance.
No sooner said than done. An old-fashioned Hughes microphone was
constructed by means of three little carbon rods, and this miniature
microphone was attached to the sound box. The microphone was In series
with a battery and the primary of an ordinary telephone induction coil.
The music transmission was excellent and phonograph music was transmitted
over a distance of three hundred yards on my father’s estate.
These experiments created quite a sensation in those days, and my
friends, all electrical "bugs," were much elated and pleased with the
stunt One evening I accidentally touched the two wires of the secondary
terminals of the telephone coil and was quite surprised to get a smart
and disagreeable shock.
That was in 1900. The early experiments were soon forgotten, but in 1917,
while editing an article in this magazine, where a young man had
re-discovered the ancient experiment, I thought of that shock, and I
understood immediately what that shock really was. I accordingly set to
work and immediately built a new transmitter which was attached to a
Victor phonograph sound box, and which is shown in Fig. 4.
The connections are shown from which it will be seen that the microphone
is in series with the 6-volt storage battery and the primary of an
induction coil such as is used in telephone work.
The writer used a regulation sound box merely by making a microphone out
of it and substituting a carbon diafram for the mica diafram. The space
between the hack carbon and the carbon diafram is filled out with polisht
carbon grains. The mechanical suspension of the carbon diafram must be
the same as the one for the mica-diafram. In other words, the vibrations
of the phonograph needle must he faithfully past onto the carbon diafram,
the same as is the case with the mica type.
When the connections are correctly made and two handles are now attached
to the secondary of the induction coil, and these graspt in your hands,
the rhythm of the music will be felt faithfully and with astonishing
fidelity. What we do feel is sound vibration translated into electrical
impulses which in turn are felt physiologically by the human nerves.
It is surprising how well this translated music is communicated to the
nervous system of the human being, and with a little practice it becomes
possible to recognize the different tunes merely by the variations of the
little tingling shocks.
Different records were tried in 1917, but just then the United States
entered into the war, and the experiments came to a sudden end. Recently,
however, they were taken up again with the following results.
Improvements were made on the microphone and a great many new types were
tried out, because the original type was not entirely satisfactory.
Later experiments, however, proved to me that the 1917 type in principle
was probably the best that could be produced. From some ten or twelve
types which were evolved by me then, a few are. shown here.
Many different records were tried, and it seemed to be readily establisht
that the different tunes, the different musical instruments, as well as
voices, could be readily differentiated physiologically without listening
at all to the music, or without hearing any sound whatsoever.
Of course, it goes without saying that such experiments must be made with
the phonograph in a different part of the building with the handles so
far away that the music from the phonograph cannot be heard at all. When
using the microphone type as shown in Fig. 4, the sound near the
phonograph is still audible, altho not anywhere near as loud as if the
original mica-diafram were used.
For this reason the handles must be located in another room so that
whatever music leaves the phonograph cannot be heard. I used a
double-throw switch and a loud talker of the type commercially sold, and
invited visitors to first listen to the phonograph record by means of the
loud talker. Then the switch was thrown, and of course no sound was heard
at all. By grasping the handles, the visitors could readily follow the
rhythm of the record, and right here a curious thing happens.
Some people, altho musically inclined, have trouble in following the
music, while others immediately recognize the different strains and have
no trouble to sing or whistle with this physiological music.
There seems to be a difference in the nervous system of individuals, and
some people can more readily translate the rhythm than others, altho not
necessarily more musically inclined. Other tests were made paralleling
the idea by using no phonograph at all, but simply a microphone into
which a person spoke. By having the experimenter count from one to a
hundred, the other party at the far end could feel the voice impulses and
after a while managed to "understand" the voice by physiological
In Fig. 1 is shown another type of transmitter attacht in front of the
sound box in the phonograph. It consists simply of three transmitters
connected in parallel, the connections being the same as usual. This,
however, did not work as well, and very little could be felt at the
In Fig. 2 is shown two transmitters, because the writer at one time when
working with a single transmitter on a disc type phonograph did not
receive all the impulses, that is to say, only one side of the lateral
cut vibrated the diafram.
The same idea is shown in Fig. 3 where two transmitters were simply
attached to the needle holder, the rubber band serving simply to feather
the action, but the results in neither case were good, and the original
1917 type transmitter with certain refinements has been found to work
best in all respects.
What purpose is accomplisht by these experiments? Ordinary human beings
certainly do not require the translation of musical impulses into their
nervous system, but for the deaf a vast and important field has been
opened. Here we have a means of translating music into the nervous system
of a deaf person who has not the slightest conception of music. Of
course, it should be understood right here that I do not mean to convey
the idea that a deaf person will actually "hear" the music. What he does
get, however, is the rhythm, and he certainly gets this very definitely
as has been actually demonstrated by tests with deaf persons upon which
the writer experimented. It has been found that a deaf person can readily
understand the different musical pieces, and can even recognize different
musical instruments with very little practice.
Of course, the deaf person must learn the same as any other human being,
for it is a well-known fact that if a person totally deaf were restored
his hearing, he would not be able to understand what you said to him for
some time to come. He would have to learn and judge the sound just the
same as a child. The same is the case with a totally blind person who has
never seen daylight. Experiments made with such people invariably prove
that as soon as the eyesight is restored, they do not see in the sense
that the normal person does. They have not the slightest conception of
perspective and will invariably put the hands out before the eyes in
order to judge the distance. The far away mountain will look to them just
as near as a wall three feet away, and it is only gradually that a
previously blind person learns to judge the distance, i. e., by
The same is the case with the deaf person and physiological music. He
must first learn the rhythm of the music, and after a while it will
become easy for him to understand what the music or even the human voice
is like if introduced to him by means of the Physiophone.
I even go further and predict that sooner or later a totally deaf person
will carry around with him an apparatus along the line of the
“deaf-phone” type, the apparatus consisting of a sensitive microphone
such as is used with the deaf-phones now.
The microphone will be in series with a portable battery and telephone
coil, while the secondaries of this coil will go to metallic wrist bands
of the wearer. Then when he is spoken to he will soon be able to
understand the meanings of the small electrical shocks which are the
result of the human voice impinging upon the sensitive microphone.
Coming back to our phonograph experiments, the deaf person can now enjoy
dancing which he certainly could not do before, for he had no music or
rhythm to dance by. One of our illustrations shows how deaf persons will
now be able to dance by means of phonograph music and the Physiophone.
The revolving wheel below the ceiling in the room or dance hall has
flexible wires hanging down, which in turn connect with the secondaries
of the telephone coils. These are connected with the microphone and
battery near the phonograph in the manner stated above.
Wires hanging down from this wheel connect to metal wrist pieces attached
to each one of the dancers. As soon as the music starts, the dancers
become conscious of the music and begin to dance, enjoying the dancing,
perhaps, even more than normal human beings, due to the electrifying
effect of the current. As the dancers progress, the overhead wheel keeps
turning so that the wires do not become entangled.
As for the normal human being he can also enjoy the physio1ogical effect
of the electrical current for the principal reason that Faradization is
healthy and invigorating and entirely harmless. Another one of our
illustrations shows what can be accomplisht along these lines for the
normal human being. Picture a concert hall, along the stage of which a
battery of sensitive microphones is located. The current is led to the
primary of a large induction coil in series with the battery. Secondary
leads go to metallic handles hung at the back of each orchestra chair
thruout the theatre.
As soon as the music starts, every one in the audience can grasp the
handles, and they will now experience the novel effect of not only
hearing the music but also feeling it in a very invigorating manner.
This thing has already been tried out by the writer in a small way. It is
perfectly possible to put your body in series with a loud-talker
telephone. Of course, the music coming out of the horn will now be
weakened, but if your hands are wet or moist, the weakening of the
loud-talker music is not too great. You are now enabled to hear the music
as well as feel it. It will be noted in one of the photographs that a
rheostat is used, which is quite necessary to reduce the current. Some
phonograph records as for instance band music are so loud and act so
powerfully upon the microphone diafram that it is quite impossible to
hold onto the handles comfortably.
It should be noted that on some phonograph records not all the sounds can
be transmitted. In other words, very high sounds do not make themselves
felt at all, and some such records as the flute or other soft musical
instruments do not lend themselves well for physiological effects.
Records containing xylophone, piccolo, band music and the ones with
singing voices are probably the best.
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