Parameters of Vibration, Technologies of Capture, and the Layering of Voices and Faces in the Nineteenth Century

James Emmott

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Versions of this essay were delivered at the North American Victorian Studies Association (NAVSA) conference, Montreal, 12 November 2010, and at the British Association for Victorian Studies (BAVS) conference, University of Birmingham, 2 September 2011.

An improved version appears in Victorian Studies, 53.3 (Spring 2011), 468–78.

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This essay reflects on two models of indelibility or persistence that emerge from the nineteenth-century geological and archaeological imagination, advanced and illustrated by figures who attended to a peculiar intuition that voices and faces are forms that, in their different ways, persist and are susceptible to interpretative historical recovery. The essay proposes that these models, represented in Florence McLandburgh’s short story ‘The Automaton-Ear’ (1873) and in Francis Galton’s technique of composite photography, stage two sides of a significant debate in the nineteenth century concerning the extent to which the social and physical world was increasingly apprehended in ways defined by such notions as the general, the pattern, the statistical and the average, and the compound and the layered.

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1. In 1844, the geologist, rambler, and writer Hugh Miller stood on the Hebridean coastline and contemplated the rocks:

There are no sermons that seem stranger or more impressive to one who has acquired just a little of the language in which they are preached, than those which, according to the poet, are to be found in stones; a bit of fractured slate, embedded among a mass of rounded pebbles, proves voluble with ideas of a kind almost too large for the mind of man to grasp. The eternity that hath passed is an ocean without a further shore, and a finite conception may in vain attempt to span it over. But from the beach, strewed with wrecks, on which we stand to contemplate it, we see far out towards the cloudy horizon, many a dim islet and many a pinnacled rock, the sepulchres of successive eras, — the monuments of consecutive creations: the entire prospect is studded over with these landmarks of a hoar antiquity, which, measuring out space from space, constitute the vast whole a province of time; nor can the eye reach to the open shoreless infinitude beyond, in which only God existed […] — we borrow a larger, not a smaller idea of the distant eternity, from the vastness of the measured periods that occur between.1

Miller’s words encapsulate the imaginative power of geology in the mid-nineteenth century, a field whose influence on the wider culture had been felt with particular intensity since the end of the eighteenth century. The period saw a shift of focus within geological inquiry from inorganic to organic proofs of physical change, primarily with the analysis of fossil remains.2 This shift made clear the relevance of the study of rocks to vital human concerns, and explains how geology (and geological metaphors) began also to invigorate such apparently unrelated fields as comparative philology. John Herschel made that particular connection explicit in an 1836 letter to Charles Lyell, suggesting that ‘Words are to the Anthropologist what rolled pebbles are to the Geologist — Battered relics of past ages often containing within them indelible records capable of intelligible interpretation’, while for Ralph Waldo Emerson, writing in the same year as Miller, 1844, language itself might be thought of as ‘fossil poetry’. The shared concern of geology and philology, which Herschel exclaims repeatedly in his letter, was ‘Time! Time! Time!’.3 This was a time newly enlarged, and its many nineteenth-century investigations were fuelled, in Peter J. Bowler’s words, by the ‘immense extension of the range of past events’ that the fields of geology and archaeology, among others, presented for consideration.4 This, in other words, was a bewildering, anxiety-inducing, but exhilarating sense of time, on a scale designated by such terms as ‘vastness’ or ‘eternity’; this huge expanse of uncharted temporal territory was an ‘ocean without a further shore’, an ‘infinitude’.

2. Yet as this incomprehensibly huge domain was opened up, at the same time emerged the tantalizing prospect, or hope, of interpretation. This vastness, of time itself and of the accumulation of data over that time, demanded new modes and models of apprehension. There are some intriguing assumptions disclosed, perhaps unconsciously, by the writers to whom I have just referred. For Herschel, for instance, the ‘relics of past ages’, whether words or pebbles, while ‘battered’, nevertheless contain ‘indelible records capable of intelligible interpretation’. For Miller, in another suggestion of an abiding relation between ancient rocks and words, the piece of broken slate spotted among the pebbles is ‘voluble’, talkative. This notion is found elsewhere in Miller’s work, including in the title of his 1857 book Testimony of the Rocks, and in the work of a number of other geological enthusiasts, and may have its roots in Joshua (24. 27), whose communication with God was geologically preserved: ‘This stone shall be a witness unto us; for it hath heard all the words of the Lord which he spake unto us.’ Charles Darwin himself suggested that ‘fossil bones […] tell their story of former times with almost a living tongue’.5

3. I want to explore this idea of indelibility or persistence, situated against the background of these new temporal and spatial scales provided by geological and evolutionary enquiry. I will reflect on two models of persistence that would appear to emerge from the geological or archaeological imagination, advanced and illustrated by figures who attended to a peculiar intuition that voices and faces are forms that, in their different ways, persist and are susceptible to various kinds of interpretative historical recovery. I propose that these models stage two sides of a significant debate in the nineteenth century concerning the extent to which the social and physical world was increasingly apprehended in ways defined by such notions as the general, the pattern, the statistical and the average, and the compound and the layered. I want to think about how the nineteenth century found ways to both compose and decompose the world, and the new modes of reasoning that emerged from those discoveries.

4. Florence McLandburgh’s ‘The Automaton-Ear’ is a short story that would be languishing in obscurity if it had not been picked up and considered by a number of recent writers on the cultural history of sound, including Douglas Kahn and John M. Picker.6 For these writers, the principal interest is the tale’s apparent prescience, for its author imagines in it a device for capturing sounds long vanished, just four years before Thomas Edison invented the phonograph — although McLandburgh’s instrument is more a time-travelling radio-wave receiver than it is a real-time sound-tracing machine. What has been less dwelt upon is the concluding frame of the narrative, in which it is revealed that all preceding events had been figments of the protagonist’s imagination, the result of a ‘black wave of insanity’. I will want to orientate my attention towards the implications of that overlooked feature, and suggest that it says something about McLandburgh’s low opinion of a model of persistence that refuses to allow anything to die away.

5. McLandburgh’s narrator is an unnamed professor who, at the start of the story, is sitting under a tree with a book when he encounters the following lines:

As a particle of the atmosphere is never lost, so sound is never lost. A strain of music or a simple tone will vibrate in the air forever and ever, decreasing according to a fixed ratio. The diffusion of the agitation extends in all directions, like the waves in a pool, but the ear is unable to detect it beyond a certain point. It is well known that some individuals can distinguish sounds which to others under precisely similar circumstances are wholly lost. Thus the fault is not in the sound itself, but in our organ of hearing, and a tone once in existence is always in existence.7

Picker has suggested that these words — which do not appear to be drawn from any actually printed work — are a paraphrase of a section of Charles Babbage’s Ninth Bridgewater Treatise, who similarly imagined that ‘no motion’, including that impressed by human agency, ‘is ever obliterated’. Babbage goes on to claim that

Every atom, impressed with good and ill, retains at once the motions which philosophers and sages have imparted to it, mixed and combined in ten thousand ways with all that is worthless and base. The air itself is one vast library, on whose pages are forever written all that man has ever said or woman whispered.8

6. Babbage had been writing at a time, 1837, when early formulations of the principle of the conservation of energy were starting to become very influential. The idea that all energy, all motion, and all individual records of motion, might somehow be contained or conserved, in parallel with the prospect of the vast expansion of historical time opened up by recent findings in geology, was a potent imaginative combination. An acoustic frame for Babbage’s proposals, and for the professor’s exploration of minuscule sounds in ‘The Automaton-Ear’, had been provided, perhaps, by the English physicist William Hyde Wollaston, whose ruminations on ‘Sounds Inaudible by Certain Ears’ had appeared in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society in 1820. Here Wollaston had speculated on the existence of realms of sounds ‘which at present we do not know to exist’, even suggesting that these domains beyond the parameters of known vibration might define other ‘modes of existence’.9 Noting the plethora of devices that magnified visual phenomena, McLandburgh’s professor asks: ‘Why not? Ay, why not hear?’.10 His invention, which appropriately enough takes the form of an ear trumpet, forms a literal hearing aid for these apparently lost sounds. An early prototype fails when the ordinarily indistinct acoustic debris of the air are magnified ‘to such a degree as to make them utterly drown all others, and, clashing together, produce this noise like the heavy rumble of thunder’.11 In a conveniently swift sleight of plot, he improves the instrument ‘as to be able to set it very accurately for any particular period, thus rendering it sensible only to sounds of that time, all heavier and fainter vibrations being excluded’, and finds himself hearing music and voices from events and persons long since disappeared.12 With archaeological precision, the imaginary instrument sweeps away the sound-dust of the present to reach through to a deeper layer of historical time beneath.

7. Given the tale’s emphasis on the professor’s monomania, McLandburgh may have been commenting in an oblique way on the type of spiritualist delusion that gripped the likes of Edward William Cox, who speculated in his 1873 book What Am I? that all events are permanently inscribed on or by the universe. Cox writes:

Suppose a man to be transported to different points in space, with a knowledge of all distances, and provided with a telescope that would make all objects visible at any distance. Such an observer would be Omniscient. […] Thus the Universe contains an indestructible and incorruptible record of all the events of the past. They have been projected into the Ether, and are carried forward into space by the wings of light, actually existing in form and colour. The most secret deed that is done lives through eternity. There is no act of virtue and no crime that is not projected into the heaven, painted upon space, and retained there for ever!13

The psychologist R. Verdon, writing for Mind in 1877, is scathing about this notion, diagnosing it as an example of the perversion of the principle of the conservation of energy ‘for uses for which it was never intended’. ‘That every cause has an effect’, he writes, ‘and that all our actions have effects following through future ages, has very little in common with the supposition that all the records of our actions are preserved.’ He attacks Cox with a commonsense refutation:

Taking Mr. Serjeant Cox’s example of the indestructibility of the records of actions, it is sufficient to state that, although a book be full of printed matter, the mere fact of keeping it closed prevents any record of its contents escaping to the distance of a yard, much less therefore is it likely that the actions of Englishmen hidden by roofs and still more by clouds, can be seen by the most perfect human eye with all possible telescopic adjustments at the distance of the nearest fixed star.14

8. The concluding development of the tale — when we discover it has all been a dream — seems to indicate McLandburgh’s rejection of what we might term this ‘conservation’ model of persistence in broadly similar terms to Verdon. Such a model assumes that as one magnifies and de-composes (in the sense of picking apart) these fields of acoustic revenants, none of the originary sounds have themselves decomposed or deteriorated. It relies on their staying independent and autonomous; on their remaining, in other words, individual ‘indelible records capable of intelligible interpretation’.

9. I want to suggest that the mid- to late-nineteenth century saw this model, with its associated problems, giving way to almost the opposite: in other words, a dimunition of interest in the interpretation of individual records or occurrences, and an enlargement of interest in the drawing out of higher-level patterns from multiplicities of records, apprehended in their very multiplicity.

10. This brings me to my second example, which is grounded in the influence of statistical reasoning on evolutionary theory and which therefore inflected the understanding of persistence rather differently. To take a musical analogy, we might characterize the essential difference between the two models as follows: where the McLandburgh model imagines something like the permanence of individual performances, of discrete instances, this next model recognizes the persistence of form at work in terms of a score, as a pattern or a set of instructions that governs or regulates individual instantiations.

11. This is to take a different perspective on multiplicity, where the emphasis is less on the particulate collection of individual instances than on the forms which begin to emerge from such a mass. Elaborating productively on what Darwin had described as the ‘living tongue’ of fossils, Megan Perigoe Stitt has evoked the notion of a ‘speaker’ who is ‘composed of many lifetimes now gone, while giving the impression of a single, undying voice’. For Stitt, this is a manifestation of a continuity of form which was precisely ‘fundamental to the belief in evolution’.15 It also suggests a paradox or contradiction between the singular and the multiple. For how might this principle of the ‘single, undying voice’ be seen to emerge from a multiplicity of voices? Or, to transfer the analogy, a multiplicity of faces?

12. Francis Galton, a cousin of Darwin’s, came to investigate the mechanisms of heredity through a series of statistical experiments aimed at discovering patterns in the transmission of intelligence through generations of distinguished families, an approach well-attuned to marshalling large amounts of evidence towards the production of uniform regularities. His interest in the notion of human types led him to investigate the facial resemblances of a variety of groupings from twins to criminals, and he devised a technique to do that, which he called composite photography.16 The procedure, subsequently adopted by a number of photographic enthusiasts, was deceptively simple: photographs of individuals, taken according to a set of mandated specifications, are mounted on a board and a new photographic plate is multiply exposed with each one in turn. The result is an aggregate face, one that ‘represents no man in particular, but portrays an imaginary picture possessing the average features of any given group of men’.17 Galton writes:

The effect of composite portraiture is to bring into evidence all the traits in which there is agreement, and to leave but a ghost of a trace of individual peculiarities. There are so many traits in common in all faces that the composite picture when made from many components is far from being a blur; it has altogether the look of an ideal composition.18

Fig. 1. Composite photograph by Francis Galton

Fig. 1. Composite photograph of the portraits of six members of the same family, by Francis Galton (1882). Credit: Galton Papers, UCL Library Services, Special Collections.

13. This uniform face is an illustration of the principle of the ‘single, undying’ form that persists through the composition and compression of ‘many lifetimes’. For we might think of the composite technique as something like the opposite of microscopy, one of the great innovations in photography a few decades earlier. Marina Benjamin has identified the major implication of photographic microscopy, for instance of hair or fleas, as the replacement of ‘just seeing’ with seeing into and seeing through, a new perspective on seeing which is after all encoded in the very word per-spective, to ‘see through’.19 This was a hidden dimension unveiled; as William Carpenter put it in 1856, it was the revelation of ‘inexhaustible life where all seems lifeless, perpetual change where all seems inert’.20

14. Spatially, the action of enlarging decomposes simplicity into complex multiplicity — as, for example, when we see the swarming mass of cells that constitute a section of skin. Temporally, this sense of ‘perpetual change’ addresses directly the domain of biological development, in which numerous imperceptible processes combine to produce changes detectable only over time. The composite technique is perspectivally transformative, but it enables us to see through by pulling back, rather than by drilling down. Where microscopy — or microphony, microacoustics — de-composes in order to reveal how matter is composed, Galton com-poses (or composites) forms, to allow us to see those features that make themselves visible only with the repeated impression of multiple instances. The morphological blendings and smudgings in these composite images are artifacts of this pulling back of perspective, of this operation of pulling the details out of focus in order to see the larger whole. The multiple superimpositions, the stratum-like leaves of individual identities, appear as ghostly afterimages, evoking for the modern observer the principle of persistence of vision that only a decade later was to make possible the transition from chronophotography to cinematography.

15. The technique marshalled the spatial possibilities of the photograph, its capacity through repeated exposure to suspend multiple pieces of evidence in simultaneous commixture, offering a visual form for the principle of permanence and projection that Thomas Hardy invokes in his 1917 poem ‘Heredity’:

I am the family face
Flesh perishes, I live on
Projecting trait and trace
Through time to times anon
And leaping from place to place
Over oblivion.21

This persistent form, this meta-face, is, in Hardy’s words, a ‘years-heired feature that can | In curve and voice and eye | Despise the human span | Of durance’. It is produced by the overturning of invisibility in a different sense than the way hidden worlds are revealed by the microscope or the microphone. Galton’s friend and literary critic Joseph Jacobs had groped about for the right words to describe the mysterious form of the compound subject of such images: ‘the thing, person, spirit, ghost, idea, type or what you will that looks at us […] has no bodily existence; and yet there is life in its eyes’.22 This ‘life’, this ‘single, undying’ form located in no single body but spanned across multiplicity, is for Hardy ‘The eternal thing in man | That heeds no call to die’.23 The composite technique seemed for Jacobs to ‘traverse the aeons of time’ and bring the past into ‘visible presentment’.24

16. I want to propose that the mid- to late-nineteenth century witnessed a paradigm shift: from the presumption of static persistence of forms, in which all changes are both discontinuous and serial, to a framework of understanding that assumes the capacity to describe a kind of dynamic persistence. This is a framework in which voices and faces become preeminent forms of homeostasis, or what Michel Serres has called syrrhesis (from syr-, together; -rhesis, flow). In other words, they are systems whose shape persists in spite of internal turbulence and vulnerability, the way weather patterns persist through perpetual reconstitution, or how a vortex maintains its form in spite of its constant motion, or how our bodies remain the same even though all our cells are replaced in seven- to eight-year cycles. It is, perhaps, no coincidence that this period, the 1870s, sees the first formulations of the topologies of fluid dynamics, by William Thomson (Lord Kelvin), P. G. Tait, and others.25

17. This kind of composite persistence accounts for both the mechanism of heredity of facial features and for the development and evolution of the voice and language. It is a mode of thinking that is unlocked primarily by the central objective of nineteenth-century statistics: describing the states of things by the marshalling and filtering of huge amounts of data into the production of regularities, patterns, and averages. It defines the essential difference between the two models I have discussed here: where the first proposes that interpretatively valuable material is there to be found and retrieved (in an archaeological sense), the second suggests that the information as it were retrieves itself. Galton’s technique, born of the statistical reasoning that found its enduring shape in the mid-nineteenth century, can thus be readily associated with the emergence into ascendancy of a mode of apprehending the world that persists to this day: one that accepts the mutability and impermanence of form on a microscopic level, but that draws stable macroscopic patterns out of this multiplicity of shifting evidence — compressed, compounded, and composited.


I would like to thank Steven Connor and David Gillott for their invaluable feedback on versions of this essay.

  1. Hugh Miller, The Cruise of the Betsey; or, a Summer Ramble Among the Fossiliferous Deposits of the Hebrides. With Rambles of a Geologist; or, Ten Thousand Miles Over the Fossiliferous Deposits of Scotland (Boston: Gould and Lincoln, 1859), pp. 21–22.
  2. See Megan Perigoe Stitt, Metaphors of Change in the Language of Nineteenth-Century Fiction: Scott, Gaskell, and Kingsley (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998) p. 82.
  3. Herschel quoted in Adrian Desmond and James Moore, Darwin (London: Michael Joseph, 1991), p. 215. Ralph Waldo Emerson, ‘The Poet’, in Essays: Second Series (Boston: James Munroe, 1845), pp. 3–46 (p. 24).
  4. Peter J. Bowler, The Invention of Progress: The Victorians and the Past (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1989), p. 3.
  5. Desmond and Moore, Darwin, p. 144, emphasis added. Miller, The Testimony of the Rocks, or, Geology in its Bearings on the Two Theologies, Natural and Revealed (Edinburgh: Thomas Constable, 1857).
  6. Florence McLandburgh, ‘The Automaton-Ear’, Scribner’s Monthly, 5 (1873), 711–20. Douglas Kahn, Noise, Water, Meat: A History of Sound in the Arts (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999). John M. Picker, Victorian Soundscapes (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003).
  7. McLandburgh, ‘Automaton-Ear’, p. 711.
  8. Charles Babbage, The Ninth Bridgewater Treatise: A Fragment, ed. by Martin Campbell-Kelly (London: Pickering & Chatto, 1989), p. 37, p. 36.
  9. William Hyde Wollaston, ‘On Sounds Inaudible by Certain Ears’, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, 110 (1 January 1820), p. 314.
  10. McLandburgh, ‘Automaton-Ear’, p. 711.
  11. McLandburgh, ‘Automaton-Ear’, p. 713.
  12. McLandburgh, ‘Automaton-Ear’, p. 713–14.
  13. Edward W. Cox, What Am I? A Popular Introduction to Mental Philosophy and Psychology, 2 vols (London: Longman, 1874), II, p. 439.
  14. R. Verdon, ‘Forgetfulness’, Mind, 2.8 (October 1877), 437–52 (p. 441), emphasis added.
  15. Stitt, Metaphors of Change, p. 52.
  16. In thinking through the many resonances of Galton’s composite technique, including its relationship to nineteenth-century understandings of dynamic persistence, I am especially indebted to Daniel A. Novak’s imaginative work on nineteenth-century photography, for example in Realism, Photography, and Nineteenth-Century Fiction (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008).
  17. Francis Galton, ‘Composite Portraits, Made by Combining Those of Many Different Persons Into a Single Resultant Figure’, Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, 8 (1879), p. 132.
  18. Francis Galton, Inquiries Into Human Faculty and its Development (New York: Macmillan, 1883), p. 10.
  19. Marina Benjamin, ‘Sliding Scales: Microphotography and the Victorian Obsession With the Minuscule’, in Cultural Babbage: Technology, Time and Invention, ed. by Francis Spufford and Jenny Uglow (London: Faber and Faber, 1996), pp. 99–122 (p. 106).
  20. Quoted in Benjamin, ‘Sliding Scales’, p. 107.
  21. Thomas Hardy, ‘Heredity’, in Collected Poems of Thomas Hardy (London: Macmillan, 1930), ll. 1–8.
  22. Joseph Jacobs, ‘The Jewish Type, and Galton’s Composite Photographs’, Photographic News 29.1390 (1885), pp. 268–29 (p. 269).
  23. Thomas Hardy, ‘Heredity’, in Collected Poems of Thomas Hardy (London: Macmillan, 1919), pp. 407–08, ll. 11–12.
  24. Jacobs, ‘The Jewish Type’, p. 269.
  25. Michel Serres, ‘The Origin of Language: Biology, Information Theory, and Thermodynamics’, in Hermes: Literature, Science, Philosophy, ed. by Josué V. Harari and David F. Bell (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982), pp. 71-83.

Works Cited