Romantic Circles Gallery
Outlines of Experiments and Inquiries Respecting Sound and Light, Plate VI


This image uses scientific diagrams to depict sound waves and vibrational patterns. The specific phenomena depicted by the various figures and the import of these depictions are discussed at length below (See "Significance").

Accession Number: 

RE26 O62 Y686 O88 1800

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This portion of Thomas Young’s work includes five black and white plates, as well as pages 105-150 of the accompanying text. This text is an excerpt from a letter that was originally published as part of Philosophical Transactions, the journal printed and released by the Royal Society of London (Wood). There is a brief mention of the work in Young’s obituary in the September 1829 issue ofThe Gentleman’s Magazine. In addition to his work with sound and light, Young began the first successful translation of the Rosetta Stone in 1814, deciphering first the Greek “enchorial part of the inscription” before beginning work on “the hieroglyphical part” (Wood 278). Though he is not given primary credit as the translator, these first successful forays into the translation aided the ensuing work on hieroglyphics.
No exhibition history identified.
Plates VI and VII of Thomas Young’s Outlines of Experiments and Inquiries Respecting Sound and Light.
These plates appear as scientific illustrations for the various acoustic concepts that Thomas Young outlines in his text.
The Quaker doctor and scientist Thomas Young had just finished his medical studies at Gottingen University and Cambridge at the time of this text’s publication. This period of study not only prepared him for his medical career, but also provided “the specialist training with the development of cultural and literary studies” that “his Quaker upbringing had tended to suppress” (Wood 43). At Gottingen, his final lectio was on the subject of the human voice, and his interests shifted from the topic of medicine to the field of physics. He writes to a friend at the end of his studies, “I . . . have of late been diverging a little into the physical and mathematical theory of sound in general. I fancy I have made some singular observations on vibrating strings, and I mean to pursue my experiments” (Wood 50). Interestingly, this preoccupation resulted in his most famous experiments: those proving the wave theory of light. He began his medical practice in London after his time at Cambridge, so we must assume that his Outlines of Experiments was completed and published during his course of study (Wood).
Edinburgh University. Gottingen University. Cambridge University.
Thomas Young’s Outlines of Experiments and Inquiries Respecting Sound and Light (1800); this text was detached from Philosophical Transactions, vol. 90 (January 1800).
Using mathematical techniques, this image visually depicts aural phenomena: the sound waves produced by playing an octave.
Hearing. Sound waves. Harmonics. Musical notes. Chord structure.
Thomas Young’s experiments involved both the senses of the eye and the ear. While the discoveries for which he is most famous are focused around the wave theory of light, it is significant for the purposes of this gallery that his experiments in the area of optics and light were greatly influenced by his work in acoustics. Thinking about the way that sound waves moved became a useful template for his work with light waves—and this, in turn, helps us think about the connection between sight and sound that the Romantics were exploring. Spectacles like the phantasmagoria or the eidophusikon, which used both visual and aural stimulation, point to a fusion between sight and sound that became central to the comprehensive experience of the observer.

In figures 47 and 48 of plate VI, Young describes the visual element found in “the frequency of vibrations constituting a given note,” and explains that the individual interested in duplicating the figures depicted should
take one of the lowest strings of the square piano forte, round which a fine silvered wire is wound in a spiral form; contract the light of a window, so that, when the eye is placed in a proper position, the image of the light may appear small, bright, and well defined, on each of the convolutions of the wire. Let the chord be now made to vibrate, and the luminous point will delineate its path, like a burning coal whirled round, and will present to the eye a line of light, which, by the assistance of a microscope, may be very accurately observed. (Young 135)
Here the eye tracks the path of vibration, and so follows the motion of sound through the string. Though sound had become more central to the Romantic understanding of the world, the eye was still the primary sense through which even information about the other senses was processed. The diversity of experiments designed to bring sound into the realm of sight indicates this need for ocular domination.

The curves of figure 46 are also significant, as they “demonstrate to the eye the existence of secondary vibrations . . . [that] account for the acute harmonic sounds which generally attend the fundamental sound” (Ibid. 137). This is especially important because harmonics were a subject of dispute during this time period. Some acoustic theorists argued that only the minor 7th harmonic could be detected during a chord or note’s duration; however, others claimed they could detect harmonics up to the 13th and higher. Young is offering visual proof that these harmonics exist. While he does not weigh in on either side of the harmonics debate, he suggests the possibility that there may be visual proof (as opposed to the “hearsay” of those who claimed to “hear” the harmonics) of the higher harmonics’ existence.

In figures 41 and 42, we see the use of mathematical techniques; sine curves are are used to depict vibrational patterns. The fact that there is only one figure utilizing mathematics in this way is telling: mathematics and graphs had not yet become significant ways of interpreting visual and aural data. Here we see an early adoption of mathematical means for acoustic ends, but it stops short at extending this methodology throughout the other figures. In 43 A-D, the illustration again attempts to register aural stimulae in visual form, yet in a less mathematical, more abstract form. In this case, Young brings to our attention the phantom beats that fall upon the ear when notes of different intervals are played simultaneously—a phenomenon encountered, for example, in listening to two flutes attempting to tune one another.

Figures 44-52 all seek to depict aural phenomena in visual contexts, ranging from “epitrochoidal curves” (fig. 46) to “the appearance of a vibrating chord which has been inflected in the middle” (fig. 49). In order to reflect upon Young’s combination of the visual and aural, it is worthwhile to consider what these diagrams ask of us: here, we are at the mercy of mathematical and visual techniques to explain what were formerly ephemeral and fleeting experiences. By working towards establishing a visual way of registering these experiences, Young simultaneously demystifies and valorizes the aural mode of sensing the world.
Barbour, J. Murray. Tuning and Temperament: A Historical Survey. East Lansing: Michigan State College Press, 1953. Print.

Bryan’s Dictionary of Painters and Engravers. Ed. George C. Williamson. 5 vols. London: G. Bell, 1925-1927. Print.

"Harmonics, or the Analogy of Musical Sound." Musical World 12.85 (1839): 238-244. Print.

Ryskamp, Charles. William Blake: Engraver, a Descriptive Catalogue of an Exhibition. Princeton: Princeton University Library, 1969. Print.

Wood, Alexander. Thomas Young, Natural Philosopher. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1954. Print.

Young, Thomas. Outlines of Experiments and Inquiries Respecting Sound and Light. London, 1800. Print.

"Thomas Young, M.D. F.R.S."The Gentleman's Magazine, and Historical Chronicle Sept. 1829: 276-279. Print.
Plate VI: Philos. Trans. MDCCC. Plate VI. Engraving.