Appliance As Instrument, Instrument As Irritation

William Du Bois Duddell and the "Singing Arc"(1899)

Before Thomas Alva Edison invented the electric light bulb electric street lighting was in wide use in Europe. A carbon arc lamp provided light by creating a spark between two carbon nodes which would then separate, creating a phase. The problem with this method of lighting, apart from the dullness of the light and inefficient use of electricity was a constant humming noise from the arc. The British physicist William Duddell was appointed to solve the problem in London in 1899 and during his experiments found that by varying the voltage supplied to the lamps he could create controllable audible frequencies

By attaching a keyboard to the arc lamps he created one of the first electronic instruments and the first electronic instrument that was audible without using the telephone system as an amplifier/speaker. When Duddell exhibited his invention to the London institution of Electrical Engineers it was noticed that arc lamps on the same circuit in other buildings also played music from Duddell's machine this generated speculation that music delivered over the lighting network could be created. Duddell didn't capitalise on his discovery and didn't even file a patent for his instrument.


Duddell toured the country with his invention which unfortunately never became more than a novelty. It was later recognised that if an antenna was attached to the singing arc and made to 'sing' at radio frequencies rather than audio it could be used as a continuous radio wave transmitter. The carbon arc lamp's audio capabilities was also used by Thadeus Cahill during his public demonstrations of his Telharmonium ten years later.

William Du Bois Duddell and the "Singing Arc"(1899)
Author not mentioned


The Industrial Museum of the Peaceful Arts has received from Cornell University a piece of the underground electric arc light cable which is believed to be the oldest in the country and which was buried on the Cornell Campus for over forty years. The cable was 500 feet in length, carried 20 amperes and conveyed current one way to two arc lamps in the steeple of the university chapel.
National Museum of American History



A similar method of tuning appliance can be seen below. When reducing the current supplied to a fridge (normally at 50hz from 220v.) one can trace different notes. Only ranging a few notes difference in the modification of 100volts (less than half its power supply), the pitch of a fridge can best be heard by means of contrast in the presence of a second pitch. In this manner, to create a 12 tone fridge instrument would be impossible. At a low voltage (around 70 volts) the given fridge engine would turn itself off. This threshold varies from fridge to fridge.
Commonly thought of as unwanted sound, some people enjoy and rely upon the mesmerising sounds of appliance such as a fridge in order to sleep.



Vladimir Gavreau

Excerpt from a text by Gerry Vassilatos

The central research theme of Dr. Vladimir Gavreau was the development of remote controlled automatons and robotic devices. To this end he assembled a group of scientists in 1957. The group, including Marcel Miane, Henri Saul, and Raymond Comdat, successfully developed a great variety of robotic devices for industrial and military purposes. In the course of developing mobile robots for use in battlefields and industrial fields, Dr. Gavreau and his staff made a strange and astounding observation which, not only interrupted their work, but became their major research theme.
Housed in a large concrete building, the entire group periodically experienced a disconcerting nausea which flooded the research facility. Day after day, for weeks at a time, the symptoms plagued the researchers. Called to inspect the situation, industrial examiners also fell victim to the malady. It was thought that the condition was caused by pathogens, a "building sickness". No such agencies were ever biologically detected. Yet the condition prevailed. Research schedules now seriously interrupted, a complete examination of the building was called.
The researchers noticed that the mysterious nauseations ceased when certain laboratory windows were blocked. It was then assumed that "chemical gas emissions" of some kind were responsible for the malady, and so a thorough search of the building was undertaken. While no noxious fumes could be detected by any technical means, the source was finally traced by building engineers to an improperly installed motor-driven ventilator. The engineers at first thought that this motor might be emitting noxious fumes, possibly evaporated oils and lubricants. But no evaporated products were ever detected. It was found that the loosely poised low speed motor, poised in its cavernous duct of several stories, was developing "nauseating vibrations".
The mystery magnified for Dr. Gavreau and his team, when they tried to measure the sound intensity and pitch. Failing to register any acoustic readings at all, the team doubted the assessment of the building engineers. Nevertheless, closing the windows blocked the sense of nausea. In a step of brilliant scientific reasoning, Gavreau and his colleagues realized that the sound with which they were dealing was so low in pitch that it could not register on any available microphonic detector. The data was costly to the crew.
They could not pursue the "search" for long time periods. During the very course of tracking the sound down, an accidental direct exposure rendered them all extremely ill for hours. When finally measured, it was found that a low intensity pitch of a fundamental 7 cycles per second was being produced. Furthermore, this infrasonic pitch was not one of great intensity either. It became obvious that the slow vibrating motor was activating an infrasonic resonant mode in the large concrete duct. Operating as the vibrating "tongue" of an immense "organ pipe", the rattling motor produced nauseating infrasound. Coupled with the rest of the concrete building, a cavernous industrial enclosure, the vibrating air column formed a bizarre infrasonic "amplifier".
Knowledge of this infrasonic configuration also explained why shutting the windows was mildly effective in "blocking the malady". The windows altered the total resonant profile of the building, shifting the infrasonic pitch and intensity. Since this time, others have noted the personally damaging effects of such infrasonic generation in office buildings and industrial facilities. The nauseating effects of exposure to a low intensity natural or manmade infrasonic source is now well appreciated.
It has become a routine architectural procedure to seek out and alter any possible such resonant cavities. The sources often appear in older buildings, the result of construction rendered faulty by previous lack of this knowledge. All such "improper" architectural formats are modified by the additions of sound-blocking materials.
The next step for Dr. Gavreau and his team had been to turn their findings to the development of sonic weaponry.

Gerry Vassilatos 1997 Borderland Sciences Research Foundation, Inc.