Popular Science Monthly/Volume 19/June 1881/Production of Sound by Radiant Energy I

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IN a paper read before the American Association for the Advancement of Science, last August, I described certain experiments made by Mr. Sumner Tainter and myself which had resulted in the construction of a "Photophone" or apparatus for the production of sound by light;[2] and it will be my object to-day to describe the progress we have made in the investigation of photophonic phenomena since the date of this communication.

In my Boston paper the discovery was announced that thin disks of very many different substances emitted sounds when exposed to the action of a rapidly-interrupted beam of sunlight. The great variety of material used in these experiments led me to believe that sonorousness under such circumstances would be found to be a general property of all matter.

At that time we had failed to obtain audible effects from masses of the various substances which became sonorous in the condition of thin diaphragms, but this failure was explained upon the supposition that-the molecular disturbance produced by the light was chiefly a surface action, and that under the circumstances of the experiments the vibration had to be transmitted through the mass of the substance in order to affect the ear. It was therefore supposed that, if we could lead to the ear air that was directly in contact with the illuminated surface, louder sounds might be obtained, and solid masses be found to be as sonorous as thin diaphragms. The first experiments made to verify this hypothesis pointed toward success. A beam of sunlight was focused into one end of an open tube, the ear being placed at the other end. Upon interrupting the beam, a clear, musical tone was heard, the pitch of which depended upon the frequency of the interruption of the light and the loudness upon the material composing the tube.

At this stage our experiments were interrupted, as circumstances called me to Europe.

While in Paris a new form of the experiment occurred to my mind, which would not only enable us to investigate the sounds produced by masses, but would also permit us to test the more general proposition that sonorousness, under the influence of intermittent light, is a property common to all matter.

The substance to be tested was to be placed in the interior of a transparent vessel, made of some material which (like glass) is transparent to light, but practically opaque to sound.

Under such circumstances the light could get in, but the sound produced by the vibration of the substance could not get out. The audible effects could be studied by placing the ear in communication with the interior of the vessel by means of a hearing-tube.

Some preliminary experiments were made in Paris to test this idea, and the results were so promising that they were communicated to the French Academy on October 11, 1880, in a note read for me by M. Antoine Breguet.[3] Shortly afterward I wrote to Mr. Tainter, suggesting that he should carry on the investigation in America, as circumstances prevented me from doing so myself in Europe. As these experiments seem to have formed the common starting-point for a series of independent researches of the most important character, carried on simultaneously, in America by Mr. Tainter, and in Europe by M. Mercadier,[4] Professor Tyndall,[5] W. E. Röntgen,[6] and W. H. Preece,[7] I may be permitted to quote from my letter to Mr. Tainter the passage describing the experiments referred to:


Metropolitan Hotel, Rue Cambon, Paris, November 2, 1880.

Dear Me. Tainter:. . . I have devised a method of producing sounds by the action of an intermittent beam of light from substances that can not be obtained in the shape of thin diaphragms or in the tubular form; indeed, the method is specially adapted to testing the generality of the phenomenon we have discovered, as it can be adapted to solids, liquids, and gases.

Place the substance to be experimented with in a glass test-tube, connect a rubber tube with the mouth of the test-tube, placing the other end of the pipe to the ear. Then focus the intermittent beam upon the substance in the tube. I have tried a large number of substances in this way with great success, although it is extremely difficult to get a glimpse of the sun here, and when it does shine the intensity of the light is not to be compared with that to be obtained in Washington. 1 got splendid effects from crystals of bichromate of potash, crystals of sulphate of copper, and from tobacco-smoke. A whole cigar placed in the test-tube produced a very loud sound. I could not hear anything from plain water, but when the water was discolored with ink a feeble sound was heard. I would suggest that you might repeat these experiments and extend the results. . . .

Upon my return to Washington in the early part of January,[8] Mr. Tainter communicated to me the results of the experiments he had made in my laboratory during my absence in Europe.

He had commenced by examining the sonorous properties of a vast number of substances inclosed in test-tubes in a simple empirical search for loud effects. He was thus led gradually to the discovery that cotton-wool, worsted, silk, and fibrous materials generally, produced much louder sounds than hard, rigid bodies like crystals, or diaphragms such as we had hitherto used.

In order to study the effects under better circumstances, he inclosed his materials in a conical cavity in a piece of brass closed by a flat plate of glass. A brass tube leading into the cavity served for connection with the hearing-tube. When this conical cavity was stuffed with worsted or other fibrous materials the sounds produced were much louder than when a test-tube was employed. This form of receiver is shown in Fig. 1.

Fig. 1.
PSM V19 D200 Hearing tube with screen sound amplifier.jpg

Mr. Tainter next collected silks and worsteds of different colors, and speedily found that the darkest shades produced the best effects. Black worsted especially gave an extremely loud sound.

As white cotton-wool had proved itself equal, if not superior, to any other white fibrous material before tried, he was anxious to obtain colored specimens for comparison. Not having any at hand, however, he tried the effect of darkening some cotton-wool with lampblack. Such a marked reënforcement of the sound resulted that he was induced to try lampblack alone.

About a teaspoonful of lampblack was placed in a test-tube and exposed to an intermittent beam of sunlight. The sound produced was much louder than any heard before.

Upon smoking a piece of plate-glass, and holding it in the intermittent beam with the lampblack surface toward the sun, the sound produced was loud enough to be heard, with attention, in any part of the room. With the lampblack surface turned from the sun, the sound was much feebler.

Mr. Tainter repeated these experiments for me immediately upon my return to Washington, so that I might verify his results.

Upon smoking the interior of the conical cavity shown in Fig. 1, and then exposing it to the intermittent beam, with the glass lid in position as shown, the effect was perfectly startling. The sound was so loud as to be actually painful to an ear placed closely against the end of the hearing-tube.

The sounds, however, were sensibly louder when we placed some smoked wire-gauze in the receiver, as illustrated in the drawing (Fig. 1).

When the beam was thrown into a resonator, the interior of which had been smoked over a lamp, most curious alternations of sound and silence were observed. The interrupting disk was set rotating at a high rate of speed, and was then allowed to come gradually to rest. An extremely feeble musical tone was at first heard, which gradually fell in pitch as the rate of interruption grew less. The loudness of the sound produced varied in the most interesting manner. Minor reënforcements were constantly occurring, which became more and more marked as the true pitch of the resonator was neared. When at last the frequency of interruption corresponded to the frequency of the fundamental of the resonator, the sound produced was so loud that it might have been heard by an audience of hundreds of people.

The effects produced by lampblack seemed to me to be very extraordinary, especially as I had a distinct recollection of experiments made in the summer of 1880 with smoked diaphragms, in which no such reënforcement was noticed.

Upon examining the records of our past photophonic experiments we found in vol. vii, p. 57, the following note:

Experiment V.—Mica diaphragm covered with lampblack on side exposed to light.

Result: distinct sound about same as without lampblack.—A. G. B., July 18, 1880.

Verified the above, but think it somewhat louder than when used without lampblack.—S. T., July 18, 1880.

Upon repeating this old experiment we arrived at the same result as that noted. Little if any augmentation of sound resulted from smoking the mica. In this experiment the effect was observed by placing the .mica diaphragm against the ear, and also by listening through a hearing-tube, one end of which was closed by the diaphragm. The sound was found to be more audible through the free air when the ear was placed as near to the lampblack surface as it could be brought without shading it.

Fig. 2
PSM V19 D202 Sound transmission with lampblack reflector.jpg

At the time of my communication to the American Association I had been unable to satisfy myself that the substances which had become sonorous under the direct influence of intermittent sunlight were capable of reproducing the sounds of articulate speech under the action of an undulatory beam from our photophonic transmitter. The difficulty in ascertaining this will be understood by considering that the sounds emitted by / thin diaphragms and tubes were so feeble that it was impracticable to produce audible effects from substances in these conditions at any considerable distance away from the transmitter; but it was equally impossible to judge of the effects produced by our articulate transmitter at a short distance away, because the speaker's voice was directly audible through the air. The extremely loud sounds produced from lampblack have enabled us to demonstrate the feasibility of using this substance in an articulating photophone in place of the electrical receiver formerly employed.

The drawing (Fig. 2) illustrates the mode in which the experiment was conducted. The diaphragm of the transmitter (A) was only five centimetres in diameter, the diameter of the receiver (B) was also five centimetres, and the distance between the two was forty metres, or eight hundred times the diameter of the transmitting diaphragm. We were unable to experiment at greater distances without a heliostat, on account of the difficulty of keeping the light steadily directed on the receiver. Words and sentences spoken into the transmitter in a low tone of voice were audibly reproduced by the lampblack receiver.

Fig. 3.
PSM V19 D203 Modulating sound generated by sunlight.jpg

PSM V19 D203 Rotating perforated disc for modulating sound flow.jpg In Fig. 3 is shown a mode of interrupting a beam of sunlight for producing distant effects without the use of lenses. Two similarly-perforated disks are employed, one of which is set in rapid rotation, while the other remains stationary. This form of interrupter is also admirably adapted for work with artificial light. The receiver illustrated in the drawing: consists of a parabolic reflector, in the focus of which is placed a glass vessel (A) containing lampblack or other sensitive substance, and connected with a hearing-tube. The beam of light is interrupted by its passage through the two slotted disks shown at B, and in operating the instrument musical signals like the dots and dashes of the Morse alphabet are produced from the sensitive receiver (A) by slight motions of the mirror (C) about its axis (D).

In place of the parabolic reflector shown in the figure a conical reflector like that recommended by Professor Sylvanus Thompson[9] can be used, in which case a cylindrical glass vessel would be preferable to the flask (A) shown in the figure.

In regard to the sensitive materials that can be employed, our experiments indicate that in the case of solids the physical condition and the color are two conditions that markedly influence the intensity of the sonorous effects. The loudest sounds are produced from substances in a loose, porous, spongy condition, and from those that have the darkest or most absorbent colors.

The materials from which the best effects have been produced are cotton-wool, worsted, fibrous materials generally, cork, sponge, platinum, and other metals in a spongy condition, and lampblack.

The loud sounds produced from such substances may perhaps be explained in the following manner: Let us consider, for example, the case of lampblack—a substance which becomes heated by exposure to rays of all refrangibility. I look upon a mass of this substance as a sort of sponge, with its pores filled with air instead of water. When a beam of sunlight falls upon this mass, the particles of lampblack are heated, and consequently expand, causing a contraction of the airspaces or pores among them.

Under these circumstances a pulse of air should be expelled, just as we would squeeze out water from a sponge.

The force with which the air is expelled must be greatly increased by the expansion of the air itself, due to contact with the heated particles of lampblack. When the light is cut off, the converse process takes place. The lampblack particles cool and contract, thus enlarging the air spaces among them, and the inclosed air also becomes cool. Under these circumstances a partial vacuum should be formed among the particles, and the outside air would then be absorbed, as water is by a sponge when the pressure of the hand is removed.

I imagine that in some such manner as this a wave of condensation is started in the atmosphere each time a beam of sunlight falls upon lampblack, and a wave of rarefaction is originated when the light is cut off. We can thus understand how it is that a substance like lampblack produces intense sonorous vibrations in the surrounding air, while at the same time it communicates a very feeble vibration to the diaphragm or solid bed upon which it rests.

This curious fact was independently observed in England by Mr. Preece, and it led him to question whether, in our experiments with thin diaphragms, the sound heard was due to the vibration of the disk or (as Professor Hughes had suggested) to the expansion and contraction of the air in contact with the disk confined in the cavity behind the diaphragm. In his paper read before the Royal Society on the 10th of March, Mr. Preece describes experiments from which he claims to have proved that the effects are wholly due to the vibrations of the confined air, and that the disks do not vibrate at all.

I shall briefly state my reasons for disagreeing with him in this conclusion:

1. When an intermittent beam of sunlight is focused upon a sheet of hard rubber or other material, a musical tone can be heard, not only by placing the ear immediately behind the part receiving the beam, but by placing it against any portion of the sheet, even though this may be a foot or more from the place acted upon by the light.

2. When the beam is thrown upon the diaphragm of a "Blake transmitter," a loud musical tone is produced by a telephone connected in the same galvanic circuit with the carbon button (A), Fig. 4. Good effects are also produced when the carbon button (A) forms, with the battery (B), a portion of the primary circuit of an induction-coil, the telephone (C) being placed in the secondary circuit.

In these cases the wooden box and mouth-piece of the transmitter should be removed, so that no air-cavities may be left on either side of the diaphragm.

It is evident therefore, that in the case of thin disks a real vibration of the diaphragm is caused by the action of the intermittent beam, independently of any expansion and contraction of the air confined in the cavity behind the diaphragm.

Lord Rayleigh has shown mathematically that a to-and-fro vibration, of sufficient amplitude to produce an audible sound, would result from a periodical communication and abstraction of heat, and he says: "We may conclude, I think, that there is at present no reason for discarding the obvious explanation that the sounds in question are due to the bending of the plates under unequal heating" ("Nature," vol. xxiii, p. 274). Mr. Preece, however, seeks to prove that the sonorous effects can not be explained upon this supposition; but his experimental proof is inadequate to support his conclusion. Mr. Preece expected that, if Lord Rayleigh's explanation was correct, the expansion and contraction of a thin strip under the influence of an intermittent beam could be caused to open and close a galvanic circuit so as to produce a musical tone from a telephone in the circuit. But this was an inadequate way to test the point at issue, for Lord Rayleigh has shown ("Proceedings of the Royal Society," 1877) that an audible sound can be produced by a vibration whose amplitude is less than a ten-millionth of a centimetre, and certainly such a vibration as that would not have sufficed to operate a "make-and-break contact" like that used by Mr. Preece. The negative results obtained by him can not, therefore, be considered conclusive.

The following experiments (devised by Mr. Tainter) have given

PSM V19 D206 Circuit of sound amplification.jpg
Fig. 4
PSM V19 D206 Layout of light path and sound control circuit.jpg

results decidedly more favorable to the theory of Lord Rayleigh than to that of Mr. Preece:

1. A strip (A) similar to that used in Mr. Preece's experiment was attached firmly to the center of an iron diaphragm (B), as shown in Fig. 5, and was then pulled taut at right angles to the plane of the diaphragm. When the intermittent beam was focused upon the strip (A), a clear musical tone could he heard by applying the ear to the hearing-tube (C).

Fig. 5.
PSM V19 D207 Verifying sound by vibration of the diaphragm.jpg

This seemed to indicate a rapid expansion and contraction of the substance under trial.

But a vibration of the diaphragm (B) would also have resulted if the thin strip (A) had acquired a to-and-fro motion, due either to the direct impact of the beam or to the sudden expansion of the air in contact with the strip.

2. To test whether this had been the case, an additional strip (D) was attached by its central point only to the strip under trial, and was then submitted to the action of the beam, as shown in Fig. 6.

It was presumed that, if the vibration of the diaphragm (B) had been due to a pushing force acting on the strip (A), the addition of the strip (D) would not interfere with the effect; but, if, on the other hand, it had been due to the longitudinal

Fig. 6.
PSM V19 D207 Confirming the longitudinal vibration of the metal strip.jpg

expansion and contraction of the strip (A), the sound would cease, or at least be reduced. The beam of light falling upon the strip (D) was now interrupted as before by the rapid rotation of a perforated disk, which was allowed to come gradually to rest.

No sound was heard excepting at a certain speed of rotation, when a feeble musical tone became audible.

This result is confirmatory of the first.

The audibility of the effect at a particular rate of interruption suggests the explanation that the strip D had a normal rate of vibration of its own.

When the frequency of the interruption of the light corresponded to this, the strip was probably thrown into vibration after the manner of a tuning-fork, in which case a to-and-fro vibration would be propagated down its stem or central support to the strip (A).

This indirectly proves the value of the experiment.

The list of solid substances that have been submitted to experiment in my laboratory is too long to be quoted here, and I shall merely say that we have not yet found one solid body that has failed to become sonorous under proper conditions of experiment.[10]

Experiments with Liquids.—The sounds produced by liquids are much more difficult to observe than those produced by solids. The high absorptive power possessed by most liquids would lead one to expect intense vibrations from the action of intermittent light; but the number of sonorous liquids that have so far been found is extremely limited, and the sounds produced are so feeble as to be heard only by the greatest attention and under the best circumstances of experiment. In the experiments made in my laboratory, a very long test-tube was filled with the liquid under examination, and a flexible rubber tube was slipped over the mouth far enough down to prevent the possibility of any light reaching the vapor above the surface. Precautions were also taken to prevent reflection from the bottom of the test-tube. An intermittent beam of sunlight was then focused upon the liquid in the middle portion of the test-tube by means of a lens of large diameter.

Clear water No sound audible.
Water discolored by ink Feeble sound.
Mercury No sound heard.
Sulphuric ether[10] Feeble but distinct sound.
Ammonia  " " " " 
Ammonio-sulphate of copper  " " " " 
Writing-ink  " " " " 
Indigo in sulphuric acid  " " " " 
Chloride of copper  " " " " 

The liquids distinguished by an asterisk gave the best sounds.

Acoustic vibrations are always much enfeebled in passing from liquids to gases, and it is probable that a form of experiment may be devised which will yield better results by communicating the vibrations of the liquid to the ear through the medium of a solid rod.

Experiments with Gaseous Matter.—On the 29th of November, 1880, 1 had the pleasure of showing to Professor Tyndall, in the laboratory of the Royal Institution, the experiments described in the letter to Mr. Tainter from which I have quoted above; and Professor Tyndall at once expressed the opinion that the sounds were due to rapid changes of temperature in the body submitted to the action of the beam. Finding that no experiments had been made at that time to test the sonorous properties of different gases, he suggested filling one test-tube with the vapor of sulphuric ether (a good absorbent of heat), and another with the vapor of bisulphide of carbon (a poor absorbent), and he predicted that if any sound were heard it would be louder in the former case than in the latter.

The experiment was immediately made, and the result verified the prediction.

Since the publication of the memoirs of Röntgen[11] and Tyndall[12] we have repeated these experiments, and have extended the inquiry to a number of other gaseous bodies, obtaining in every case similar results to those noted in the memoirs referred to.

The vapors of the following substances were found to be highly sonorous in the intermittent beam: Water-vapor, coal-gas, sulphuric ether, alcohol, ammonia, amylene, ethyl bromide, diethylamene, mercury, iodine, and peroxide of nitrogen. The loudest sounds were obtained from iodine and peroxide of nitrogen.

I have now shown that sounds are produced by the direct action of intermittent sunlight from substances in every physical condition (solid, liquid, and gaseous), and the probability is, therefore, very greatly increased that sonorousness under such circumstances will be found to be a universal property of matter.

[To te continued.]

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  1. A paper read before the National Academy of Arts and Sciences, April 21, 1881. (From author's advance-sheets.)
  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. 40 1; "Annales de Chimie et de Physique," vol. xxi.
  3. "Comptes Rendus," vol. exl, p. 595.
  4. "Notes on Radiophony" ("Comptes Rendus," December 6 and 13, 1880; February 21 and 28, 1881). See, also, "Journal de Physique," vol. x, p. 53.
  5. "Action of an Intermittent Beam of Radiant Heat upon Gaseous Matter" ("Proceedings of the Royal Society," January 13, 1881, vol. xxxi, p. 307).
  6. "On the Tones which arise from the Intermittent Illumination of a Gas." (See "Annalen der Physik und Chemie," January, 1881, No. 1, p. 155.)
  7. "On the Conversion of Radiant Energy into Sonorous Vibration"("Proceedings of the Royal Society," March 10, 1881, vol. xxxi, p. 506).
  8. On the 7th of January.
  9. "Philosophical Magazine," April, 1881, vol. xi, p. 286.
  10. 10.0 10.1 Carbon and thin microscope-glass are mentioned in ray Boston paper as nonresponsive, and powdered chlorate of potash in the communication to the French Academy ("Comptes Rendus," vol. cxl, p. 595). All these substances have since yielded sounds under more careful conditions of experiment.
  11. "Annalen der Physik und Cbemie," 1881, No. 1, p. 155.
  12. "Proceedings of the Royal Society," vol. xxxi, p. 307.