Popular Science Monthly/Volume 19/July 1881/Production of Sound by Radiant Energy II

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627389Popular Science Monthly Volume 19 July 1881 — Production of Sound by Radiant Energy II1881Alexander Graham Bell



AT the time of my communication to the American Association[2] the loudest effects obtained were produced by the use of selenium, arranged in a cell of suitable construction, and placed in a galvanic circuit with a telephone. Upon allowing an intermittent beam of sunlight to fall upon the selenium, a musical tone of great intensity was produced from the telephone connected with it.

But the selenium was very inconstant in its action. It was rarely, if ever, found to be the case that two pieces of selenium (even of the Fig. 7 same stick) yielded the same results under identical circumstances of annealing, etc. While in Europe last autumn, Dr. Chichester Bell, of University College, London, suggested to me that this inconstancy of result might be due to chemical impurities in the selenium used. Dr. Bell has since visited my laboratory in Washington, and has made a chemical examination of the various samples of selenium I had collected from different parts of the world. As I understand it to be his intention to publish the results of this analysis very soon, I shall make no further mention of his investigation than to state that he has found sulphur, iron, lead, and arsenic in the so-called "selenium," with traces of organic matter; that a quantitative examination has revealed the fact that sulphur constitutes nearly one per cent, of the whole mass; and that when these impurities are eliminated the selenium appears to be more constant in its action and more sensitive to light.

Professor W. G. Adams[3] has shown that tellurium, like selenium, has its electrical resistance affected by light, and we have attempted to utilize this substance in place of selenium. The arrangement of cell (shown in Fig. 7) was constructed for this purpose in the early part of 1880; but we failed at that time to obtain any indications of sensitiveness with a reflecting galvanometer. We have since found, however, that when this tellurium spiral is connected in circuit with a galvanic battery and telephone, and exposed to the action of an intermittent beam of sunlight, a distinct musical tone is produced by the telephone. The audible effect is much increased by placing the tellurium cell with the battery in the primary circuit of an induction-coil, and placing the telephone in the secondary circuit.

The enormously high resistance of selenium and the extremely low resistance of tellurium suggested the thought that an alloy of these two substances might possess intermediate electrical properties. We have accordingly mixed together selenium and tellurium in different proportions, and, while we do not feel warranted at the present time in making definite statements concerning the results, I may say that such alloys have proved to be sensitive to the action of light.

It occurred to Mr. Tainter, before my return to Washington last January, that the very great molecular disturbance produced in lamp-black by the action of intermittent sunlight should produce a corresponding disturbance in an electric current passed through it, in which Fig. 8. case lampblack could be employed in place of selenium in an electrical receiver. This has turned out to be the case, and the importance of the discovery is very great, especially when we consider the expense of such rare substances as selenium and tellurium.

The form of lampblack cell we have found most effective is shown in Fig. 8. Silver is deposited upon a plate of glass, and a zigzag line is then scratched through the film, as shown, dividing the silver surface into two portions insulated from one another, having the form of two combs with interlocking teeth.

Each comb is attached to a screw-cup, so that the cell can be placed in an electrical circuit when required. The surface is then smoked until a good film of lamp-black is obtained, filling the interstices between the teeth of the silver combs. When the lampblack cell is connected with a telephone and galvanic battery, and exposed to the influence of an intermittent beam of sunlight, a loud musical tone is produced by the telephone. This result seems to be due rather to the physical condition than to the nature of the conducting material employed, as metals in a spongy condition produce similar effects. For instance, when an electrical current is passed through spongy platinum while it is exposed to intermittent sunlight, a distinct musical tone is produced by a telephone in the same circuit. In all such cases the effect is increased by the use of an induction-coil; and the sensitive cells can be employed for the reproduction of articulate speech, as well as for the production of musical sounds.

We have also found that loud sounds are produced from lamp-black by passing through it an intermittent electrical current; and that it can be used as a telephonic receiver for the reproduction of articulate speech by electrical means.

A convenient mode of arranging a lampblack cell for experimentalFig. 9. purposes is shown in Fig. 9. When an intermittent current is passed through the lampblack (A), or when an intermittent beam of sunlight falls upon it through the glass plate (B), a loud musical tone can be heard by applying the ear to the hearing-tube (C). When the light and the electrical current act simultaneously, two musical tones are perceived, which produce beats when nearly of the same pitch. By proper arrangements a complete interference of sound can undoubtedly be produced.

Upon the Measurement of the Sonorous Effects produced by Different Substances.—We have observed that different substances produce sounds of very different intensities under similar circumstances of experiment, and it has appeared to us that very valuable information might be obtained if we could measure the audible effects produced. For this purpose we have constructed several different forms of apparatus for studying the effects, but, as our researches are not yet complete, I shall confine myself to a simple description of some of the forms of apparatus we have devised.

When a beam of light is brought to a focus by means of a lens, the beam diverging from the focal point becomes weaker as the distance increases in a calculable degree. Hence, if we can determine the distances from the focal point at which two different substances emit sounds of equal intensity, we can calculate their relative sonorous powers.

Preliminary experiments were made by Mr. Tainter, during my absence in Europe, to ascertain the distance from the focal point of a lens at which the sound produced by a substance became inaudible. A few of the results obtained will show the enormous differences existing between different substances in this respect.


Zinc diaphragm (polished) 1·51
Hardrubber diaphragm 1·90
Tinfoil " 2·00
Telephone " (japanned iron) 2·15
Zinc " (unpolished) 2·15
White silk, (in receiver shown in Fig. 1.) 3·10
White worsted, " " " 4·01
Yellow worsted, " " " 4·06
Yellow silk, " " " 4·13
White cottonwool, " " " 4·38
Green silk, " " " 4·52
Blue worsted, " " " 4·69
Purple silk, " " " 4·82
Brown silk, " " " 5·02
Black silk, " " " 5·21
Red silk, " " " 5·24
Black worsted, " " " 6·50
Lampblack. In receiver the limit of audibility could not be determined, on account of want of space. Sound perfectly audible at a distance of. 10·00

Mr. Tainter was convinced from these experiments that this field of research promised valuable results, and he at once debased an apparatus for studying the effects, which he described to me upon my return from Europe. The apparatus has since been constructed, and I take great pleasure in showing it to you to-day.

1. A beam of light is received by two similar lenses (A B, Fig. 10), which bring the light to a focus on either side of the interrupting disk (C). The two substances, whose sonorous powers are to be compared, are placed in the receiving vessels (D E) (so arranged as to expose equal surfaces to the action of the beam) which communicate, by flexible tubes (F G) of equal length, with the common hearing-tube (H). The receivers (D E) are placed upon slides, which can be moved along the graduated supports (I K). The beams of light passing through the interrupting disk (C); are alternately cut off by the swinging of a pendulum (L). Thus a musical tone is produced alternately from the substance in D and from that in E. One of the receivers is kept at a constant point upon its scale, and the other receiver is moved toward or from the focus of its beam until the ear decides that the sounds produced from D and E are of equal intensity. The relative positions of the receivers are then noted.

2. Another method of investigation is based upon the production of an interference of sound, and the apparatus employed is shown in Fig. 11. The interrupter consists of a tuning-fork (A, Fig. 11, ), which is kept in continuous vibration by means of an electro-magnet (B).

A powerful beam of light is brought to a focus between the prongs

Fig. 10.

of the tuning-fork (A), and the passage of the beam is more or less obstructed by the vibration of the opaque screens (C D) carried by the prongs of the fork.

As the tuning-fork (A) produces a sound by its own vibration, it is placed at a sufficient distance away to be inaudible through the air, and a system of lenses is employed for the purpose of bringing the undulating beam of light to the receiving lens (E) with as little loss as possible. The two receivers (F G) are attached to slides (H I) which move upon opposite sides of the axis of the beam, and the receivers are connected by flexible tubes of unequal length (K L) communicating with the common hearing-tube (M).

The length of the tube (K) is such that the sonorous vibrations from the receivers (F G) reach the common hearing-tube (M) in opposite phases. Under these circumstances silence is produced when the vibrations in the receivers (F G) are of equal intensity. When the intensities are unequal, a residual effect is perceived. In operating the instrument the position of the receiver (G) remains constant, and the receiver (F) is moved to or from the focus of the beam until complete silence is produced. The relative positions of the two receivers are then noted.

3. Another mode is as follows: The loud ness of a musical tone produced by the action of light is compared with the loudness of a tone of similar pitch produced by electrical means. A rheostat introduced into the circuit enables us to measure the amount of resistance required to render the electrical sound equal in intensity to the other.

4. If the tuning-fork (A) in Fig. 11 is thrown into vibration by an undulatory instead of an intermittent current passed through the electro-magnet (B), it is probable that a musical tone, electrically produced in the

Fig. 11.

Fig. 11. a.

receiver (F) by the action of the same current, would be found capable of extinguishing the effect produced in the receiver (G) by the action of the undulatory beam of light, in which case it should be possible to establish an acoustic balance between the effects produced by light and electricity by introducing sufficient resistance into the electric circuit.

Upon the Nature of the Rays that produce Sonorous Effects in Different Substances.—In my paper read before the American Association last August, and in the present paper, I have used the word "light" in its usual rather than its scientific sense, and I have not hitherto attempted to discriminate the effects produced by the different constituents of ordinary light—the thermal, luminous, and actinic rays. I find, however, that the adoption of the word "photophone" by Mr. Tainter and myself has led to the assumption that we believed the audible effects discovered by us to be due entirely to the action of luminous rays. The meaning we have uniformly attached to the words "photophone" and "light" will be obvious from the following: passage, quoted from my Boston paper:

Although effects are produced, as above shown, by forms of radiant energy, which are invisible, we have named the apparatus for the production and reproduction of sound in this way the "photophone," because an ordinary beam of light contains the rays which are operative.

To avoid in future any misunderstandings upon this point, we have decided to adopt the term "radiophone," proposed by M. Mercadier, as a general term signifying an apparatus for the production of sound by any form of radiant energy, limiting the words thermophone photophone., and actinophone to apparatus for the production of sound by thermal, luminous, or actinic rays respectively.

Fig. 12.

M. Mercadier, in the course of his researches in radiophony, passed an intermittent beam from an electric lamp through a prism, and then examined the audible effects produced in different parts of the spectrum ("Comptes Rendus," December 6, 1880).

We have repeated this experiment, using the sun as our source of radiation, and have obtained results somewhat different from those noted by M. Mercadier.

A beam of sunlight was reflected from a heliostat (A, Fig. 12) through an achromatic lens (B), so as to form an image of the sun upon the slit (C).

The beam then passed through another achromatic lens (D), and through a bisulphide-of-carbon prism (E), forming a spectrum of great intensity, which, when focused upon a screen, was found to be sufficiently pure to show the principal absorption lines of the solar spectrum.

The disk-interrupter (F) was then turned with sufficient rapidity to produce from five to six hundred interruptions of the light per second, and the spectrum was explored with the receiver (G), which was so arranged that the lampblack surface exposed was limited by a slit, as shown.

Under these circumstances sounds were obtained in every part of the visible spectrum, excepting the extreme half of the violet, as well as in the ultra-red. A continuous increase in the loudness of the sound was observed upon moving the receiver (G) gradually from the violet into the ultra-red. The point of maximum sound lay very far out in the ultra-red. Beyond this point the sound began to decrease, and then stopped so suddenly that a very slight motion of the receiver (G) made all the difference between almost maximum sound and complete silence.

2. The lampblacked wire gauze was then removed, and the interior of the receiver (G) was filled with red worsted. Upon exploring the spectrum as before, entirely different results were obtained. The maximum effect was produced in the green at that part where the red worsted appeared to be black. On either side of this point the sound gradually died away, becoming inaudible on the one side in the middle of the indigo, and on the other at a short distance outside the edge of the red.

3. Upon substituting green silk for red worsted, the limits of audition appeared to be the middle of the blue and a point a short distance out in the ultra-red—maximum in the red.

4. Some hard-rubber shavings were now placed in the receiver (G). The limits of audibility appeared to be, on the one hand, the junction of the green and blue, and, on the other, the outside edge of the red—maximum in the yellow. Mr. Tainter thought he could hear a little way into the ultra-red, and to his ear the maximum was about the junction of the red and orange.

5. A test-tube containing the vapor of sulphuric ether was then substituted for the receiver (G). Commencing at the violet end, the test-tube was gradually moved down the spectrum and out into the ultra-red without audible effect, but, when a certain point far out in the ultra-red was reached, a distinct musical tone suddenly made its appearance, which disappeared as suddenly on moving the test-tube a very little farther on.

6. Upon exploring the spectrum with a test-tube containing the vapor of iodine, the limits of audibility appeared to be the middle of the red and the junction of the blue and indigo—maximum in the green.

7. A test-tube containing peroxide of nitrogen was substituted for that containing iodine. Distinct sounds were obtained in all parts of the visible spectrum, but no sounds were observed in the ultra-red.

The maximum effect seemed to me to be in the blue. The sounds were well marked in all parts of the violet, and I even fancied that the audible effect extended a little way into the ultra-violet, but of this I can not be certain. Upon examining the absorption spectrum of peroxide of nitrogen it was at once observed that the maximum sound was produced in that part of the spectrum where the greatest number of absorption lines made their appearance.

8. The spectrum was now explored by a selenium cell, and the audible effects were observed by means of a telephone in the same galvanic circuit with the cell. The maximum effect was produced in the red. The audible effect extended a little way into the ultra-red on the one hand and up as high as the middle of the violet on the other.

Although the experiments so far made can only be considered as preliminary to others of a more refined nature, I think we are warranted in concluding that the nature of the rays that produce sonorous effects in different substances depends upon the nature of the substances that are exposed to the beam, and that the sounds are in every case due to those rays of the spectrum that are absorbed by the body.

The Spectrophone.—Our experiments upon the range of audibility of different substances in the spectrum have led us to the construction of a new instrument for use in spectrum analysis, which was described and exhibited to the Philosophical Society of Washington last Saturday.[4] The eye-piece of a spectroscope is removed, and sensitive substances are placed in the focal point of the instrument behind an opaque diaphragm containing a slit. These substances are put in communication with the ear by means of a hearing-tube, and thus the instrument is converted into a veritable spectrophone, like that shown in Fig. 13.

Fig. 13.

Suppose we smoke the interior of our spectrophonic receiver, and fill the cavity with peroxide of nitrogen gas. We have then a combination that gives us good sounds in all parts of the spectrum (visible and invisible), except the ultra-violet. Now, pass a rapidly-interrupted beam of light through some substance whose absorption spectrum is to be investigated, and bands of sound and silence are observed upon exploring the spectrum, the silent positions corresponding to the absorption bands. Of course, the ear can not for one moment compete with the eye in the examination of the visible part of the spectrum; but in the invisible part beyond the red, where the eye is useless, the ear is invaluable. In working in this region of the spectrum, lampblack alone may be used in the spectrophonic receiver. Indeed, the sounds produced by this substance in the ultra-red are so well marked as to constitute our instrument a most reliable and convenient substitute for the thermopile. A few experiments that have been made may be interesting.

Fig. 14.

1. The interrupted beam was filtered through a saturated solution of alum.

Result: The range of audibility in the ultra-red was slightly reduced by the absorption of a narrow band of the rays of lowest refrangibility. The sounds in the visible part of the spectrum seemed to be unaffected.

2. A thin sheet of hard rubber was interposed in the path of the beam.

Result: Well-marked sounds in every part of the ultra-red. So sounds in the visible part of the spectrum, excepting the extreme half of the red.

These experiments reveal the cause of the curious fact alluded to in my paper read before the American Association last August—that sounds were heard from selenium when the beam was filtered through both hard rubber and alum at the same time. (See table of results in Fig. 14.)

3. A solution of ammonia-sulphate of copper was tried.

Result: When placed in the path of the beam, the spectrum disappeared, with the exception of the blue and violet end. To the eye the spectrum was thus reduced to a single broad band of blue-violet light. To the ear, however, the spectrum revealed itself as two bands of sound, with a broad space of silence between. The invisible rays transmitted constituted a narrow band just outside the red.

I think I have said enough to convince you of the value of this new method of examination, but I do not wish you to understand that we look upon our results as by any means complete. It is (often more interesting to observe the first totterings of a child than to watch the firm tread of a full-grown man, and I feel that our first footsteps in this new field of science may have more of interest to you than the fuller results of mature research. This must be my excuse for having dwelt so long upon the details of incomplete experiments.

I recognize the fact that the spectrophone must ever remain a mere adjunct to the spectroscope, but I anticipate that it has a wide and independent field of usefulness in the investigation of absorption spectra in the ultra-red.

  1. Continued from page 197.
  2. "Proceedings of American Association for the Advancement of Science," August 27, 1880; see, also, "American Journal of Science," vol. xx, p. 305; "Journal of the American Electrical Society," vol, iii, p. 3; "Journal of the Society of Telegraph Engineers and Electricians," vol. ix, p. 404; "Annales de Chimie et de Physique," vol. xxi.
  3. "Proceedings of the Royal Society," vol. xxiv, p. 163.
  4. "Proceedings of the Philosophical Society" of Washington, April 10, 1881.