Romantic Circles Gallery
Treatise on Sound, Plate 3


These scientific diagrams depict "vibrations in solid bodies," including rods and plates.

Accession Number: 

QC 3 G4

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This essay is included in a sampling of essays for a course book on general physics (containing a hand-written table of contents and notes on various chapters). All of the chapters appear to be reproductions rather than actual published articles. The section on sound runs from page 747 to 824 and includes 6 black and white plates.
A review of Herschel's essay on sound is excerpted below, taken from The Quarterly Review:
A work on any branch of natural philosophy from the pen of Mr. Herschell must at all times be an object of interest to the philosopher as well as to the general reader, who is sufficiently prepared for its perusal: his mathematical acquirements, his acquaintance with modern discovery, his powers of illustration, the originality of his views, qualify him in a peculiar manner for writing a systematic account of any of the physical sciences. The ‘treatise on sound,’ of which we propose to give some account, is marked with all these characteristics of his powerful mind; but we regret to add, that it is fitted only for the perusal of the mathematical philosopher; and though the general reader will discover, here and there, portions which he is capable of understanding, yet he will find himself baffled at ever step by profound views, and by the perpetual recurrence of mathematical formulae. ("ART" 475)
Plate 3 of John Herschel’s Treatise on Sound
This image served as an illustration in Sir John Herschel’s essay, Treatise on Sound.
Sir John Herschel’s Treatise on Sound (1848)
In this image, Herschel presents readers with another set of experiments that helps them conceptualize the movement of sound through space, again depending on the visual. Figures 36-41 involve the vibrations of a rod either resting against a wall or free. Even more interesting are figures 42-46; these illustrations depict “vibrations in plates of metal,” and show the movement of sand on a plate being vibrated with a bow. Herschel writes that the sand is “thrown away from the vibrating parts" and accumulates "on those at rest." The succeeding figures are the same experiments applied to circular, as opposed to square, sheets of metal.
Sound. Acoustics. Vibrations. The senses.
This image marks yet another way to conceptualize the aural through visual means. Sound becomes embodied, made visible in the varied and beautiful patterns produced by the motion of its waves through sheets of metal; if sound can be said to have a character—such as that ascribed to the Aeolian harp by Romantic poets and philosophers—then Herschel provides us with an elegant depiction of the aesthetic quality of that character. The patterns are symmetrical, balanced, and intriguing. While the primary objective of these engravings is ostensibly scientific (given the context and content of the text they accompany), they also fulfill the surreptitious function of aestheticzing sound: by making sound visible, the engravings ask the observer to reconceive the sounds that reach his or her own ears in a particular, aesthetic way.

Herschel’s experiments are modeled on those of Ernst Florens Freidrich Chladni, who announced his discovery of “sand figures” in 1785. These figures led to observations by the Romantic physicist Johann Wilhelm Ritter:
[Ritter] held the opinion that material images, like Chladni’s figures, entailed the true language—a pictorial language—of science . . . While the mathematical approach to sound was by no means excised, it was this respect for the image and the attitude that pictures could give meaningful signs of phenomena that excited the Naturphilosophen. (Hankins and Silverman 132)
The "Naturphilosophen" (Hankins and Silverman are referring specifically to Julius Robert von Mayer, Hans Christian Oersted, and Lorenz Oken) searched for these symmetries as “signs of hidden relationships among natural forces” (Hankins and Silverman 132). As a result, the sand figures also raised questions about the potential intersections of myriad areas that are kept separate in 20th- and 21st-century scientific inquiry. Influenced by theories of magic from the seventeenth century, and navigating the developing fields of science, natural philosophy, acoustics, and music, these men sought an overarching narrative from which to derive meaning (Hankins and Silverman)

The aural aspect of this narrative was continually supplemented by the rhetoric of sight. Men like Herschel, and in the following passage, the reviewers of his text, consistently used visual analogies to explain aural phenomena:
[N]ow it is a singular fact that these colors, red and green, are harmonic colors, or such as always harmonize together in painting; and they have, besides, another property in forming white light when they are mixed together. In like manner, the harmonic color of blue is orange, and that of yellow, violet. The retina of the human eye, therefore, is, by the action of one color, thrown into such a state of vibration, as to see at the same time its harmonic color. ("ART" 493)
In order for the reader to understand harmonics in terms of what we hear, these writers have determined that the harmonics of what we see will provide the easiest parallel. In this case, they go on to describe the way in which one may look at a square of blue, and yet, when looking away, see a red square instead. These ghost colors are a fitting representation of musical harmony: both colors and harmonics are invisible supplements to what either the eye or ear, respectively, is actually sensing. Born out of resonance and vibration, this confluence of sight and sound buttressed an eighteenth-century and early nineteenth-century understanding of the shared, invisible aspects of sight and sound.
"ART. VI.-A Treatise on Sound." The Quarterly Review 44.88 (1831): 475-512. Print.

Ferguson, W.T. Sir John Herschel and Education at the Cape 1834-1840. Cape Town: Oxford UP, 1961. Print.

Hankins, Thomas, and Robert Silverman. Instruments and the Imagination. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1995. Print.

Barlow, Peter and John F. W. Herschel. The Encyclopaedia of Mechanical Philosophy: Comprising the Sciences of Mechanics, Hydrodynamics, Pneumatics, and Optics. London: J. J. Griffin, 1848. Print.

“Joseph Wilson Lowry, F.R.G.S." Nature 20.504 (1879): 197-198. Print.
Plate 3: Sound. Black and white print plate.