Popular Science Monthly/Volume 7/August 1875/On the Motions of Sound

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ON the 21st and 22d of June, 1822, a commission appointed by the Bureau of Longitudes of France executed a celebrated series of experiments on the velocity of sound. Two stations had been chosen, the one at Villejuif, the other at Montlhéry, both lying south of Paris, and 11.6 miles distant from each other. Prony, Mathieu, and Arago, were the observers at Villejuif, while Humboldt, Bouvard, and Gay-Lussac, were at Montlhéry. Guns, charged sometimes with three pounds of powder, were fired at both stations, and the velocity was deduced from the interval between the appearance of the flash and the arrival of the sound.

On this memorable occasion an observation was made which, as far as I know, has remained a scientific enigma to the present hour. It was noticed that while every report of the cannon fired at Montlhéry was heard with the greatest distinctness at Villejuif, by far the greater number of the reports from Villejuif failed to reach Montlhéry. Had wind existed, and had it blown from Montlhéry to Villejuif, it would have been recognized as the cause of the observed difference; but the air at the time was calm, the slight motion of translation actually existing being from Villejuif toward Montlhéry, or against the direction in which the sound was best heard.

So marked was the difference in transmissive power between the two directions that on the 22d of June while every shot fired at Montlhéry was heard à merveille [with wonderful distinctness] at Villejuif, but one shot out of twelve fired at Villejuif was heard, and that feebly, at the other station.

With the caution which characterized him on other occasions, and which has been referred to admiringly by Faraday,[1] Arago made no attempt to explain this anomaly. His words are: "As for the very notable differences of intensity constantly observed in the sound of the cannon accordingly as it was propagated from north to south between Villejuif and Montlhéry, or from south to north between the latter station and the former, we will not at present try to explain it, as we could present to the reader only conjectures unsupported by evidence."[2]

I have tried, after much perplexity of thought, to bring this subject within the range of experiment, and have now to submit to the Royal Society a possible solution of this enigma. The first step was to ascertain whether the sensitive flame referred to in my recent paper in the "Philosophical Transactions" could be safely employed in experiments on the mutual reversibility of a source of sound and an object on which the sound impinges. Now, the sensitive flame usually employed by me measures from eighteen to twenty-four inches in height, while the reed employed as a source of sound is less than a square quarter of an inch in area. If, therefore, the whole flame or the pipe which fed it were sensitive to sonorous vibrations, strict experiments on reversibility with the reed and flame might be difficult, if not impossible. Hence my desire to learn whether the seat of sensitiveness was so localized in the flame as to render the contemplated interchange of flame and reed permissible.

The flame being placed behind a cardboard screen, the shank of a funnel, passed through a hole in the cardboard, was directed upon the middle of the flame. The sound-waves issuing from the vibrating reed placed within the funnel produced no sensible effect upon the flame. Shifting the funnel so as to direct its shank upon the root of the flame, the action was violent.

To augment the precision of the experiment, the funnel was connected with a glass tube three feet long and half an inch in diameter, the object being to weaken by distance the effect of the waves diffracted round the edge of the funnel, and to permit those only which passed through the glass tube to act upon the flame.

Presenting the end of the tube to the orifice of the burner (b, Fig. 1), or the orifice to the end of the tube, the flame was violently agitated by the sounding-reed, R. On shifting the tube, or the burner, so as to concentrate the sound on a portion of the flame about half an inch above the orifice, the action was nil. Concentrating the sound upon the burner itself about half an inch below its orifice, there was no action.

These experiments demonstrate the localization of "the seat of sensitiveness," and they prove the flame to be an appropriate instrument for the contemplated experiments on reversibility.

The experiments proceeded thus: The sensitive flame being placed close behind a screen of cardboard eighteen inches high by twelve inches wide, a vibrating reed, standing at the same height as the root of the flame, was placed at a distance of six feet on the other side of the screen. The sound of the reed, in this position, produced a strong agitation of the flame.

PSM V07 D428 Demonstrating motions of sound.jpg

Fig. 1.

The whole upper half of the flame was here visible from the reed; hence the necessity of the foregoing experiments to prove the action of the sound on the upper portion of the flame to be nil, and that the waves had really to bend round the edge of the screen so as to reach the seat of sensitiveness in the neighborhood of the burner.

The positions of the flame and reed were reversed, the latter being now close behind the screen, and the former at a distance of six feet from it. The sonorous vibrations were without sensible action upon the flame.

The experiment was repeated and varied in many ways. Screens of various sizes were employed, and, instead of reversing the positions of the flame and reed, the screen was moved so as to bring, in some experiments the flame, and in other experiments the reed, close behind it. Care was also taken that no reflected sound from the walls or ceiling of the laboratory, or from the body of the experimenter, should have any thing to do with the effect. In all cases it was shown that the sound was effective when the reed was at a distance from the screen, and the flame close behind it; while the action was insensible when the positions were reversed.

Thus let s e, Fig. 2, be a vertical section of the screen. When the reed was at A, and the flame at B, there was no action; when the reed was at B, and the flame at A, the action was decided. It may be added that the vibrations communicated to the screen itself, and from it to the air beyond it, were without effect; for when the reed, which at B is effectual, was shifted to C, where its action on the screen was greatly augmented, it ceased to have any action on the flame at A.

We are now, I think, prepared to consider the failure of reversibility in the larger experiments of 1822. Happily an incidental observation of great significance comes here to our aitl. It was observed and recorded at the time that while the reports of the guns at Villejuif were without echoes, a roll of echoes, lasting from twenty to twenty-five seconds, accompanied every shot at Montlhéry, being heard by the observers there. Arago, the writer of the report, referred these echoes to reflection from the clouds, an explanation which I think we are entitled to regard as problematical. The report says that "all the shots fired at Montlhéry were there accompanied

PSM V07 D429 Analysis of motions of sound.jpg

Fig. 2.

by a rolling sound like that of thunder."[3] I have italicized a very significant word—a word which fairly applies to our experiments on gun-sounds at the South Foreland, where there was no sensible solution of continuity between explosion and echo, but which could hardly apply to echoes coming from the clouds. For, supposing the clouds to be only a mile distant, the sound and its echo would have been separated by an interval of nearly ten seconds. But there is no mention of any interval; and, had such existed, surely the word "followed," instead of "accompanied," would have been the one employed. The echoes, moreover, appear to have been continuous, while the clouds observed seem to have been separate. "These phenomena," says Arago, "never took place except at the moment when some clouds appeared."[4] But from separate clouds a continuous roll of echoes could hardly come. When to this is added the experimental fact that clouds far denser than any ever formed in the atmosphere are demonstrably incapable of sensibly reflecting sound, while cloud-less air, which Arago pronounced echoless, has been proved capable of powerfully reflecting it, I think we have strong reason to question the hypothesis of the illustrious French philosopher.

And considering the hundreds of shots fired at the South Foreland, with the attention specially directed to the aërial echoes, when no single case occurred in which echoes of measurable duration did not accompany the report of the gun, I think Arago's statement, that at Villejuif no echoes were heard when the sky was clear, must simply mean that they vanished with great rapidity. Unless the attention were specially directed to the point, a slight prolongation of the cannon-sound might well escape observation; and it would be all the more likely to do so if the echoes were so loud and prompt as to form apparently part and parcel of the direct sound.

I should be very loath to transgress here the limits of fair criticism, or to throw doubt, without good reason, on the recorded observations of an eminent man; still, taking into account what has just been stated, and remembering that the minds of Arago and his colleagues were occupied by a totally different problem (that the echoes were an incident rather than an object of observation), I think we may justly consider the sound which he called "instantaneous" as one whose aërial echoes did not differentiate themselves from the direct sound by any noticeable fall of intensity, and which rapidly died into silence.

Turning now to the observations at Montlhéry, we are struck by the extraordinary duration of the echoes heard at that station. At the South Foreland the charge habitually fired was equal to the largest of those employed by the French philosophers; but on no occasion did the gun-sounds produce echoes approaching to twenty or twenty-five seconds duration. It rarely reached half this amount. Even the siren-echoes, which were far more remarkable, more long-continued than those of the guns, never reached the duration of the Montlhéry echoes. The nearest approach to it was on the 17th of October, 1873, when the siren-echoes required fifteen seconds to subside into silence.

On this same day, moreover (and this is a point of marked significance), the transmitted sound reached its maximum range, the gun-sounds being heard at the Quenocs buoy, which is 16 1/2 nautical miles from the South Foreland. I have already stated that the duration of the air-echoes indicates "the atmospheric depths" from which they come.[5] An optical analogy may help us here. Let light-fall upon chalk, the light is wholly scattered by the superficial particles; let the chalk be powdered and mixed with water, light reaches the observer from a far greater depth of the turbid liquid. The chalk typifies the action of exceedingly dense acoustic clouds; the chalk and water that of clouds of moderate density. In the one case we have echoes of short, in the other, echoes of long duration. These considerations prepare us for the inference that Montlhéry, on the occasion referred to, must. have been surrounded by a highly-diacoustic atmosphere; while the shortness of the echoes at Villejuif shows the atmosphere surrounding that station to have been acoustically opaque.

Have we any clew to the cause of the opacity? I think we have. Villejuif is close to Paris, and over it, with the observed light wind, was slowly wafted the air from the city. Thousands of chimneys to windward of Villejuif were discharging their heated currents, so that an atmosphere non-homogeneous in a high degree must have surrounded that station. At no great height in the atmosphere the equilibrium of temperature would be established. The non-homogeneous air surrounding Villejuif is experimentally typified by our screen with the source of sound close behind it, the upper edge of the screen representing the place where equilibrium of temperature was established in the atmosphere above the station. In virtue of its proximity to the screen, the echoes from our sounding-reed would, in the case here supposed, so blend with the direct sound as to be practically indistinguishable from it, as the echoes at Villejuif followed the direct sound so hotly, and vanished so rapidly, that they escaped observation. And as our sensitive flame, at a distance, failed to be affected by the sounding body placed close behind the cardboard screen, so, I take it, did the observer at Montlhéry fail to hear the sounds of the Villejuif gun.

Something further may be done toward the experimental elucidation of this subject. The facility with which sounds pass through textile fabrics has been already illustrated,[6] a layer of cambric or calico, or even of thick flannel or baize being found competent to intercept but a fraction of the sound from a vibrating reed. Such a layer of calico may be taken to represent a layer of air differentiated from its neighbors by temperature or moisture; while a succession of such sheets of calico may be taken to represent successive layers of non-homogeneous air.

PSM V07 D431 Motion of sound experiment.jpg

Fig. 3.

Two tin tubes (M N and O P, Fig. 3) with open ends are placed so as to form an acute angle with each other. At the end of one is the vibrating reed r, opposite the end of the other and in the prolongation of P O is the sensitive flame f, a second sensitive flame (f') being placed in the continuation of the axis of M N. On sounding the reed, the direct sound through M N agitates the flame f'. Introducing the square of calico a b at the proper angle, a slight decrease of the action on f' is noticed, and the feeble echo from a b produces a barely perceptible agitation of the flame f. Adding another square, c d, the sound transmitted by a b impinges on c d; it is partially echoed, returns through a b, passes along P O, and still further agitates the flame f. Adding a third square, e f, the reflected sound is still further augmented, every accession to the echo being accompanied by a corresponding withdrawal of the vibrations from f', and a consequent stilling of that flame.

With thinner calico or cambric it would require a greater number of layers to intercept the entire sound; hence, with such cambric we should have echoes returned from a greater distance, and therefore of greater duration. Eight layers of the calico employed in these experiments, stretched on a wire frame, and placed close together as a kind of pad, may be taken to represent a very dense acoustic cloud. Such a pad, placed at the proper angle beyond it, cuts off the sound which in its absence reaches f', almost as effectually as an impervious solid plate; the flame f' is thereby stilled, while f is far more powerfully agitated than by the reflection from a single layer. With the source of sound close at hand, the echoes from such a pad would be of insensible duration. Thus close at hand do I suppose the acoustic clouds surrounding Villejuif to have been, a similar shortness of echo being the consequence.

A further step is here taken in the illustration of the analogy between light and sound. Our pad acts chiefly by internal reflection. The sound from the reed is a composite one, made up of partial sounds, differing in pitch. If these sounds be ejected from the pad in their pristine proportions, the pad is acoustically white; if they return with their proportions altered, the pad is acoustically colored.

In these experiments my assistant, Mr. Cottrell, has rendered me material assistance.


In preparing this new edition of "Sound," I have carefully gone over the last one, amended, as far as possible, its defects of style and matter, and paid at the same time respectful attention to the criticisms and suggestions which the former editions called forth.

The cases are few in which I have been content to reproduce what I have read of the works of acousticians. I have sought to make myself experimentally familiar with the ground occupied; trying, in all cases, to present the illustrations in the form and connection most suitable for educational purposes.

Though bearing, it may be, an undue share of the imperfection which cleaves to all human effort, the work has already found its way into the literature of various nations of diverse intellectual standing. Last year, for example, a new German edition was published "under the special supervision" of Helmholtz and Wiedemann. That men so eminent, and so overladen with official duties, should add to these the labor of examining and correcting every proof-sheet of a work like this, shows that they consider it to be what it was meant to be—a serious attempt to improve the public knowledge of science. It is especially gratifying to me to be thus assured that not in England alone has the book met a public want, but also in that learned land to which I owe my scientific education.

Before me, on the other hand, lie two volumes, of foolscap size, curiously stitched, and printed in characters the meaning of which I am incompetent to penetrate. Here and there, however, I notice the familiar figures of the former editions of "Sound." For these volumes I am indebted to Mr. John Fryer, of Shanghai, who, along with them, favored me, a few weeks ago, with a letter, from which the following is an extract: "One day," writes Mr. Fryer, "soon after the first copy of your work on 'Sound' reached Shanghai, I was reading it in my study, when an intelligent official, named Hsii-chung-hu, noticed some of the engravings, and asked me to explain them to him. He became so deeply interested in the subject of Acoustics, that nothing would satisfy him but to make a translation. Since, however, engineering and other works were then considered to be of more practical importance by the higher authorities, we agreed to translate your work during our leisure time every evening, and publish it separately ourselves. Our translation, however, when completed, and shown to the higher officials, so much interested them and pleased them, that they at once ordered it to be published at the expense of the Government, and sold at cost price. The price is four hundred and eighty copper cash per copy, or about one shilling and eight-pence. This will give you an idea of the cheapness of native printing." Mr. Fryer adds that his Chinese friend had no difficulty in grasping every idea in the book.

The new matter of greatest importance which has been introduced into this edition is an account of an investigation which, during the two past years, I have had the honor of conducting in connection with the Elder Brethren of the Trinity House. Under the title "Researches on the Acoustic Transparency of the Atmosphere, in relation to the Question of Fog-signaling," the subject is treated in Chapter VII. of this volume. It was only by governmental appliances that such an investigation could have been made; and it gives me pleasure to believe that not only have the practical objects of the inquiry been secured, but that a crowd of scientific errors, which for more than a century and a half have surrounded this subject, have been removed, their place being now taken by the sure and certain truth of Nature. In drawing up the account of this laborious inquiry, I aimed at linking the observations so together, that they alone should offer a substantial demonstration of the principles involved. Further labors enabled me to bring the whole inquiry within the firm grasp of experiment, and thus to give it a certainty which, without this final guarantee, it could scarcely have enjoyed.

Immediately after the publication of the first brief abstract of the investigation, it was subjected to criticism. To this I did not deem it necessary to reply, believing that the grounds of it would disappear in presence of the full account. The only opinion to which I thought it right to defer was to some extent a private one, communicated to me by Prof. Stokes. He considered that I had, in some cases, ascribed too exclusive an influence to the mixed currents of aqueous vapor and air, to the neglect of differences of temperature. That differences of temperature, when they come into play, are an efficient cause of acoustic opacity, I never doubted. In fact, aërial reflection arising from this cause is, in the present inquiry, for the first time made the subject of experimental demonstration. What the relative potency of differences of temperature and differences due to aqueous vapor, in the cases under consideration, may be, I do not venture to state; but, as both are active, I have, in Chapter VII., referred to them jointly as concerned in the production of those "acoustic clouds" to which the stoppage of sound in the atmosphere is for the most part due.

Subsequently, however, to the publication of the full investigation, another criticism appeared, to which, in consideration of its source, I would willingly pay all respect and attention. In this criticism, which reached me first through the columns of an American newspaper, differences in the amounts of aqueous vapor, and differences of temperature, are alike denied efficiency as causes of acoustic opacity. At a meeting of the Philosophical Society of Washington, the emphatic opinion had, it was stated, been expressed that I was wrong in ascribing the opacity of the atmosphere to its flocculence, the really efficient cause being refraction. This view appeared to me so obviously mistaken that I assumed, for a time, the incorrectness of the newspaper account.

Recently, however, I have been favored with the "Report of the United States Lighthouse Board for 1874," in which the account just referred to is corroborated. A brief reference to this report will here suffice. Major Elliott, the accomplished officer and gentleman referred to at page 261, had published a record of his visit of inspection to this country, in which he spoke, with a perfectly enlightened appreciation of the facts, of the differences between our system of lighthouse illumination and that of the United States. He also embodied in his report some account of the investigation on fog-signals, the initiation of which he had witnessed, and indeed aided, at the South Foreland.

On this able report of their own officer the Lighthouse Board at Washington make the following remark: "Although this account is interesting in itself and to the public generally, yet, being addressed to the Lighthouse Board of the United States, it would tend to convey the idea that the facts which it states were new to the Board, and that the latter had obtained no results of a similar kind; while a reference to the Appendix to this Report[8] will show that the researches of our Lighthouse Board have been much more extensive on this subject than those of the Trinity House, and that the latter has established no facts of practical importance which had not been previously observed and used by the former."

The "Appendix" here referred to is from the pen of the venerable Prof. Joseph Henry, chairman of the Lighthouse Board at Washington. To his credit be it recorded that, at a very early period in the history of fog-signaling, Prof. Henry reported in favor of Daboll's trumpet, though he was opposed by one of his colleagues on the ground that "fog-signals were of little importance, since the mariner should know his place by the character of his soundings." In the Appendix, he records the various efforts made in the United States with a view to the establishment of fog-signals. He describes experiments on bells, and on the employment of reflectors to reënforce their sound. These, though effectual close at hand, were found to be of no use at a distance. He corrects current errors regarding steam-whistles, which by some inventors were thought to act like ringing bells. He cites the opinion of the Rev. Peter Ferguson, that sound is better heard in fog than in clear air. This opinion is founded on observations of the noise of locomotives; in reference to which it may be said that others have drawn from similar experiments diametrically opposite conclusions. On the authority of Captain Keeney he cites an occurrence, "in the first part of which the captain was led to suppose that fog had a marked influence in deadening sound, though in a subsequent part he came to an opposite conclusion." Prof. Henry also describes an experiment made during a fog at Washington, in which he employed "a small bell rung by clock-work, the apparatus being the part of a moderator lamp intended to give warning to the keepers when the supply of oil ceased. The result of the experiment was, he affirms, contrary to the supposition of absorption of the sound by the fog." This conclusion is not founded on comparative experiments, but on observations made in the fog alone; "for," adds Prof. Henry, "the change in the condition of the atmosphere, as to temperature and the motion of the air, before the experiment could be repeated in clear weather, rendered the result not entirely satisfactory."

This, I may say, is the only experiment on fog which I have found recorded in the Appendix.

In 1867 the steam-siren was mounted at Sandy Hook, and examined by Prof. Henry. He compared its action with that of a Daboll trumpet, employing for this purpose a stretched membrane covered with sand, and placed at the small end of a tapering tube which concentrated the sonorous motion upon the membrane. The siren proved most powerful. "At a distance of 50, the trumpet produced a decided motion of the sand, while the siren gave a similar result at a distance of 58." Prof. Henry also varied the pitch of the siren, and found that, in association with its trumpet, 400 impulses per second yielded the maximum sound; while the best result with the unaided siren was obtained when the impulses were 360 a second. Experiments were also made on the influence of pressure; from which it appeared that, when the pressure varied from 100 lbs. to 20 lbs., the distance reached by the sound (as determined by the vibrating membrane) varied only in the ratio of 61 to 51. Prof. Henry also showed the sound of the fog-trumpet to be independent of the material employed in its construction; and he furthermore observed the decay of the sound when the angular distance from the axis of the instrument was increased. Further observations were made by Prof. Henry and his colleagues in August, 1873, and in August and September, 1874. In the brief but interesting account of these experiments an hypothetical element appears, which is absent from the record of the earlier observations.

It is quite evident from the foregoing that, in regard to the question of fog-signaling, the Lighthouse Board of Washington have not been idle. Add to this the fact that their eminent chairman gives his services gratuitously, conducting without fee or reward experiments and observations of the character here revealed, and I think it will be conceded that he not only deserves well of his own country, but also sets his younger scientific contemporaries, both in his country and ours, an example of high-minded devotion.

I was quite aware, in a general way, that labors like those now for the first time made public bad been conducted in the United States, and this knowledge was not without influence upon my conduct. The first instruments mounted at the South Foreland were of English manufacture; and I, on various accounts, entertained a strong sympathy for their able constructor, Mr. Holmes. From the outset, however, I resolved to suppress such feelings, as well as all other extraneous considerations, individual or national, and to aim at obtaining the best instruments, irrespective of the country which produced them. In reporting, accordingly, on the observations of May 19 and 20, 1873 (our first two days at the South Foreland), these were my words to the Elder Brethren of the Trinity House:

"In view of the reported performance of horns and whistles in other places, the question arises whether those mounted at the South Foreland, and to which the foregoing remarks refer, are of the best possible description.... I think our first duty is to make ourselves acquainted with the best instruments hitherto made, no matter where made; and then, if home genius can transcend them, to give it all encouragement. Great and unnecessary expense may be incurred, through our not availing ourselves of the results of existing experience.

"I have always sympathized, and I shall always sympathize, with the desire of the Elder Brethren to encourage the inventor who first made the magneto-electric light available for lighthouse purposes. I regard his aid and counsel as, in many respects, invaluable to the corporation. But however original he may be, our duty is to demand that his genius shall be expended in making advances on that which has been already achieved elsewhere. If the whistles and horns that we heard on the 19th and 20th be the very best hitherto constructed, my views have been already complied with; but if they be not—and I am strongly inclined to think that they are not—then I would submit that it behooves us to have the best, and to aim at making the South Foreland, both as regards light and sound, a station not excelled by any other in the world."

On this score it gives me pleasure to say that I never had a difficulty with the Elder Brethren. They agreed with me; and two powerful steam-whistles, the one from Canada, the other from the United States, together with the steam-siren—also an American instrument—were in due time mounted at the South Foreland. It will be seen, in Chapter VII., that my strongest recommendation applies to an instrument for which we are indebted to the United States.

In presence of these facts, it will hardly be assumed that I wish to withhold from the Lighthouse Board of Washington any credit that they may fairly claim. My desire is to be strictly just; and this desire compels me to express the opinion that their report fails to establish the inordinate claim made in its first paragraph. It contains observations, but contradictory observations; while, as regards the establishment of any principle which should reconcile the conflicting results, it leaves our condition unimproved.

But I willingly turn aside from the discussion of "claims" to the discussion of science. Inserted, as a kind of intrusive element, into the Report of Prof. Henry, is a second Report by General Duane, founded on an extensive series of observations made by him in 1870 and 1871. After stating with distinctness the points requiring decision, the general makes the following remarks:

"Before giving the results of these experiments, some facts will be stated which will explain the difficulties of determining the power of a fog-signal.

"There are six steam fog-whistles on the coast of Maine: these have been frequently heard at a distance of twenty miles, and as frequently cannot be heard at the distance of two miles, and this with no perceptible difference in the state of the atmosphere.

"The signal is often heard at a great distance in one direction, while in another it will be scarcely audible at the distance of a mile. This is not the effect of wind, as the signal is frequently heard much farther against the wind than with it.[9] for example, the whistle on Cape Elizabeth can always be distinctly heard in Portland, a distance of nine miles, during a heavy northeast snow-storm, the wind blowing a gale directly from Portland toward the whistle.[10]

"The most perplexing difficulties, however, arise from the fact that the signal often appears to be surrounded by a belt, varying in radius from one to one and a half mile, from which the sound appears to be entirely absent. Thus, in moving directly from a station the sound is audible for the distance of a mile, is then lost for about the same distance, after which it is again distinctly heard for a long time. This action is common to all ear-signals, and has been at times observed at all the stations, at one of which the signal is situated on a bare rock twenty miles from the main-land, with no surrounding objects to affect the sound."

It is not necessary to assume here the existence of a "belt," at some distance from the station. The passage of an acoustic cloud over the station itself would produce the observed phenomenon.

Passing over the record of many other valuable observations, in the Report of General Duane, I come to a few very important remarks which have a direct bearing upon the present question:

"From an attentive observation," writes the general, "during three years, of the fog-signals on this coast, and from the reports received from the captains and pilots of coasting-vessels, I am convinced that, in some conditions of the atmosphere, the most powerful signals will be at times unreliable. [11]

"Now it frequently occurs that a signal, which under ordinary circumstances would be audible at a distance of fifteen miles, cannot be heard from a vessel at the distance of a single mile. This is probably due to the reflexion mentioned by Humboldt.

"The temperature of the air over the land where the fog-signal is located being very different from that over the sea, the sound, in passing from the former to the latter, undergoes reflexion at their surface of contact. The correctness of this view is rendered more probable by the fact that, when the sound is thus impeded in the direction of the sea, it has been observed to be much stronger inland.

"Experiments and observation lead to the conclusion that these anomalies in the penetration and direction of sound from fog-signals are to be attributed mainly to the want of uniformity in the surrounding atmosphere, and that snow, rain, and fog, and the direction of the wind, have much less influence than has been generally supposed."

The Report of General Duane is marked throughout by fidelity to facts, rare sagacity, and soberness of speculation. The last three of the paragraphs just quoted exhibit, in my opinion, the only approach to a true explanation of the phenomena which the Washington Report reveals. At this point, however, the eminent chairman of the Lighthouse Board strikes in with the following criticism:

"In the foregoing I differ entirely in opinion from General Duane, as to the cause of extinction of powerful sounds being due to the unequal density of the atmosphere. The velocity of sound is not at all affected by barometric pressure; but if the difference in pressure is caused by a difference in heat, or by the expansive power of vapor mingled with the air, a slight degree of obstruction of sound may be observed. But this effect we think i-s entirely too minute to produce the results noted by General Duane and Dr. Tyndall, while we shall find in the action of currents above and below a true and efficient cause."

I have already cited the remarkable observation of General Duane, that, with a snow-storm from the northeast blowing against the sound, the signal at Port Elizabeth is always heard at Portland, a distance of nine miles. The observations at the South Foreland, where the sound has been proved to reach a distance of more than twelve miles against the wind, backed by decisive experiments, reduce to certainty the surmises of General Duane. It has, for example, been proved that a couple of gas-flames placed in a chamber can, in a minute or two, render its air so non-homogeneous as to cut a sound practically off; while the same sound passes without sensible impediment through showers of paper-scraps, seeds, bran, rain-drops, and through fumes and fogs of the densest description. The sound also passes through thick layers of calico, silk, serge, flannel, baize, close felt, and through pads of cotton-net impervious to the strongest light.

As long indeed as the air on which snow, hail, rain, or fog, is suspended is homogeneous, so long will sound pass through the air, sensibly heedless of the suspended matter.[12] This point is illustrated upon a large scale by my own observations on the Mer de Glace, and by those of General Duane, at Portland, which prove the snow-laden air from the northeast to be a highly homogeneous medium. Prof. Henry thus accounts for the fact that the northeast snow-wind renders the sound of Cape Elizabeth audible at Portland: In the higher regions of the atmosphere he places an ideal wind, blowing in a direction opposed to the real one, which always accompanies the latter, and which more than neutralizes its action. In speculating thus he bases himself on the reasoning of Prof. Stokes, according to which a sound-wave moving against the wind is tilted upward. The upper and opposing wind is invented for the purpose of tilting again the already lifted sound-wave downward. Prof. Henry does not explain how the sound-wave recrosses the hostile lower current, nor does he give any definite notion of the conditions under which it can be shown that it will reach the observer.

This, so far as I know, is the only theoretic gleam cast by the Washington Report on the conflicting results which have hitherto rendered experiments on fog-signals so bewildering. I fear it is an ignis fatuus, instead of a safe guiding light. Prof. Henry, however, boldly applies the hypothesis in a variety of instances. But he dwells with particular emphasis upon a case of non-reciprocity which he considers absolutely fatal to my views regarding the flocculence of the atmosphere. The observation was made on board the steamer City of Richmond, during a thick fog in a night of 1872. "The vessel was approaching Whitehead from the southwestward, when, at a distance of about six miles from the station, the fog-signal, which is a ten-inch steam-whistle, was distinctly perceived, and continued to be heard with increasing intensity of sound until within about three miles, when the sound suddenly ceased to be heard, and was not perceived again until the vessel, approached within a quarter of a mile of the station, although from conclusive evidence, furnished by the keeper, it was shown that the signal had been sounding during the whole time."

But, while the ten-inch shore-signal thus failed to make itself heard at sea, a six-inch whistle, on board the steamer, made itself heard on shore. Prof. Henry thus turns this fact against me: "It is evident," he writes, "that this result could not be due to any mottled condition or want of acoustic transparency in the atmosphere, since this would absorb the sound equally in both directions." Had the observation been made in a still atmosphere, this argument would, at one time, have had great force. But the atmosphere was not still, and a sufficient reason for the observed non-reciprocity is to be found in the recorded fact that the wind was blowing against the shore-signal, and in favor of the ship-signal.

But the argument of Prof. Henry, on which he places his main reliance, would be untenable, even had the air been still. By the very aërial reflexion which he practically ignores, reciprocity may be destroyed in a calm atmosphere. In proof of this assertion I would refer him to a short paper on "Acoustic Reversibility," printed at the end of this volume.[13] The most remarkable case of non-reciprocity on record, and which, prior to the demonstration of the existence and power of acoustic clouds, remained an insoluble enigma, is there shown to be capable of satisfactory solution. These clouds explain perfectly the "abnormal phenomena" of Prof. Henry. Aware of their existence, the falling off and subsequent recovery of a signal-sound, as noticed by him and General Duane, is no more a mystery than the interception of the solar light by a common cloud, and its restoration after the cloud has moved or melted away.

The clew to all the difficulties and anomalies of this question is to be found in the aërial echoes, the significance of which has been overlooked by General Duane, and misinterpreted by Prof. Henry. And here a word might be said with regard to the injurious influence still exercised by authority in science. The affirmations of the highest authorities, that from clear air no sensible echo ever comes, were so distinct, that my mind for a time refused to entertain the idea. Authority caused me for weeks to depart from the truth, and to seek counsel among delusions. On the day our observations at the South Foreland began, I heard the echoes. They perplexed me. I heard them again and again, and listened to the explanations offered by some ingenious persons at the Foreland. They were an "ocean-echo:" this is the very phraseology now used by Prof. Henry. They were echoes "from the crests and slopes of the waves: "these are the words of the hypothesis which he now espouses. Through a portion of the month of May, through the whole of June, and through nearly the whole of July, 1873, I was occupied with these echoes; one of the phases of thought then passed through, one of the solutions then weighed in the balance and found wanting, being identical with that which Prof. Henry now offers for acceptation.

But though it thus deflected me from the proper track, shall I say that authority in science is injurious? Not without some qualification. It is not only injurious, but deadly, when it cows the intellect into fear of questioning it. But the authority which so merits our respect as to compel us to test and overthrow all its supports, before accepting a conclusion opposed to it, is not wholly noxious. On the contrary, the disciplines it imposes may be in the highest degree salutary, though they may end, as in the present case, in the ruin of authority. The truth thus established is rendered firmer by our struggles to reach it. I groped day after day, carrying this problem of aerial echoes in my mind; to the weariness, I fear, of some of my colleagues who did not know my object. The ships and boats afloat, the "slopes and crests of the waves," the visible clouds, the cliffs, the adjacent lighthouses, the objects landward, were all in turn taken into account, and all in turn rejected.

With regard to the particular notion which now finds favor with Prof. Henry, it suggests the thought that his observations, notwithstanding their apparent variety and extent, were really limited as regards the weather. For did they, like ours, embrace weather of all kinds, it is not likely that he would have ascribed to the sea-waves an action which often reaches its maximum intensity when waves are entirely absent. I will not multiply instances, but confine myself to the definite statement, that the echoes have often manifested an astonishing strength, when the sea was of glassy smoothness. On days when the echoes were powerful, I have seen the southern cumuli mirrored in the waveless ocean, in forms almost as definite as the clouds themselves. By no possible application of the law of incidence and reflexion could the echoes from such a sea return to the shore; and, if we accept, for a moment, a statement which Prof. Henry seems to indorse, that sound-waves of great intensity, when they impinge upon a solid or liquid surface, do not obey the law of incidence and reflexion, but "roll along the surface like a cloud of smoke," it only increases the difficulty. Such a "cloud," instead of returning to the coast of England, would, in our case, have rolled toward the coast of France. Nothing that I could say in addition could strengthen the case here presented. I will only add one further remark. When the sun shines uniformly, on a smooth sea, thus producing a practically uniform distribution of the aerial currents to which the echoes are due, the direction in which the trumpet-echoes reach the shore is always that in which the axis of the instrument is pointed. At Dungeness this was proved to be the case throughout an arc of 210°—an impossible result, if the direction of reflexion were determined by that of the ocean-waves.

Rightly interpreted and followed out, these aerial echoes lead to a solution which penetrates and reconciles the phenomena from beginning to end. On this point I would stake the issue of the whole inquiry, and to this point I would, with special earnestness, direct the attention of the Lighthouse Board of Washington. Let them prolong their observations into calm weather: if their atmosphere resemble ours—which I cannot doubt—then I affirm that they will infallibly find the echoes strong on days when all thought of reflexion "from the crests and slopes of the waves" must be discarded. The echoes afford the easiest access to the core of this question, and it is for this reason that I dwell upon them thus emphatically. It requires no refined skill or profound knowledge to master the conditions of their production; and, these once mastered, the Lighthouse Board of Washington will find themselves in the real current of the phenomena, outside of which—I say it with respect—they are now vainly speculating. The acoustic deportment of the atmosphere in haze, fog, sleet, snow, rain, and hail, will be no longer a mystery: even those "abnormal phenomena" which are now referred to an imaginary cause, or reserved for future investigation, will be found to fall naturally into place, as illustrations of a principle as simple as it is universal.

While this Preface was passing through the press, the intelligence of the loss of the Schiller thrilled through the land. 1 look forward to a time when such a calamity upon our coast will be a simple impossibility. It is in our power to make it so; and that power will, I doubt not, be promptly and wisely employed.

Royal Institution, May, 1875.

  1. "Researches in Chemistry and Physics," p. 484.
  2. Tyndall gives the passage in French, as found in the "Connaissance des Temps," 1825, p. 370.—Ed.
  3. Tyndall quotes the French.—Ed.
  4. The French quoted by Tyndall.—Ed.
  5. "Philosophical Transactions," 1874, Part I., p. 202.
  6. "Philosophical Transactions," 1874, Part I., p. 208.
  7. Preface to forthcoming third edition of "Sound." By John Tyndall, F. R. S.
  8. It will be borne in mind that the Washington Appendix was published nearly a year after my Report to the Trinity House.
  9. That is to say, homogeneous air with an opposing wind is frequently more favorable to sound than non-homogeneous air with a favoring wind. We made the same experience at the South Foreland.—J. T.
  10. Had this observation been published, it could only have given me pleasure to refer to it in my recent writings. It is a striking confirmation of my observations on the Mer de Glace in 1859.
  11. Had I been aware of its existence I might have used the language of General Duane to express my views on the point here adverted to. (See chapter vii., pp. 319, 320.)
  12. This is not more surprising than the passage of radiant heat through rock-salt.
  13. Also "Proceedings of Royal Society," vol. xxiii., p. 159, and "Proceedings of Royal Institute," vol. vii., p. 344.