Part 1. Voice Figures - The Project

 

About a fortnight ago I submitted an expression of interest to an upcoming exhibition based on the life and work of Margaret Watts Hughes (b.1847-1907); a Welsh singer, scientist and philanthropist from the Dowlais area of Merthyr Tydfil [1]. The staff at Cyfarthfa Castle recently discovered an undocumented collection of her Voice Figures while trawling through the museum archives. These intricate geometric and organic compositions demonstrate a resonance phenomenon created using a phonic device of her own invention. The eidophone, as it became known, was initially conceived and constructed in an attempt to measure the quality and intensity of a singer's voice. However early on in the experimentation process Hughes discovered that sustaining specific notes would cause sophisticated geometric patterns to form on the membrane surface [2]. This eventually developed into the various categories of Voice Figures as described in her research paper, each figure with its unique set of characteristics and sub-divisions. The eidophone itself is uncomplicated in design, consisting of only three parts: a pipe in which to sing into (c), a receiver to act as a resonance chamber (b), and a rubber membrane that is stretched over the chamber opening (a).

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Margaret Watts Hughes would sing a note into the eidophone and imprint the vibrations created by her voice onto various surfaces, her manuscripts reveal tireless experiments with an impressive combination of materials and consistencies, achieving increasingly diverse outcomes throughout the years. The resulting artifacts would curiously resemble biological forms - daisy, fern and pansy impressions are among some of the figures conjured through her learned vocalisations [3]. Among the most peculiar examples of these Voice Figures are her delicate flower forms (below) and the coral-like structures impressed on glass plates (not shown). As participating artists, we were asked to respond to her work in order to accompany the Voice Figures in an exhibition celebrating her life, work and achievements. 

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Following our first group briefing, which covered the project, her biography, and a quick study of the Voice Figures, I set myself the task of recreating an eidophone in an attempt to understand and emulate Hughes' scientific process. The first step was acquiring a copy of her research manuscript, entitled Voice Figures: Geometric & Natural Forms Produced by Vibrations of the Human Voice, 1904. I have since developed a few prototypes of the eidophone based on her observations as well as following the works of her successors in cymatics. Through subsequent entries I will briefly cover a few examples of digital resonance devices and their applications, this series of blog posts will be a documentation of the research and development process that will eventually lead up to the group exhibition and retrospective of Margaret Watts-Hughes work.

Eidophone manuscript

Through my research I've noted a few discrepancies and shortfalls regarding the information that is available on Margaret Watts Hughes. First off, there are not a lot of images of her work online, most are the same black and white plates that appear in her research paper [2], these low quality monochrome prints do not adequately capture the jewel-like quality of the originals, it is likely that the Voice Figures were archived before colour printing became widely accessible and economically viable. Secondly, modern attributions of her work appear to be incomplete, while there are references to Margaret Watts Hughes and her Voice Figures by name, more recent sources limit their scope to the eidophone's most rudimentary function, the scattering of dry powder particles to create geometric patterns. The more advanced figures such as the above floral forms follow a more elusive process using dampened pigments and viscous liquids - I've yet to witness a contemporary attempt to recreate these floral impressions. I can only assume that current researchers following Hughes' work have surmised that demonstrating an eidophone's base function is enough to satisfy their purpose, as a result her work appears derivative of Chladni’s exploration into standing wave forms. A final point that is worth noting, there is some evidence to suggest that Margaret Watts Hughes' discovery was not received as earnestly as it could have in scientific circles, this might be down to  her admitted lack of experience in the field, but it’s worth mentioning she was a renown female singer creating floral patterns with her voice, and while by all accounts her demonstrations captured the imagination of her audience, Hughes religious preoccupation with these organic figures appear to have been enough to deem her work inconsequential to the scientific propensities of the time; they eventually became considered a parlor trick, as a result she mostly worked on furthering the discipline on her own.

 

[1] Roberts, T.R. (1908) Eminent Welshmen: A short biographical dictionary of Welshmen Vol 1. Cardiff and Merthyr Tydfil: Cardiff Educational Pub. Co. p. 547. Available at: Link. (Accessed 26 may 2017) 

[2] Watts- Hughes, M. (1904) Voice Figures: Geometric & Natural Forms Produced by Vibrations of the Human Voice, London: Christian Herald Co.

[3] Watts- Hughes, M. (1891) Voice Figures, May, Issue 42, pp. 37-39. Available at: Link. (Accessed 26 May 2017)

[4] Martz,T. (2013) Women of the Conversazioni. Available at: Link. (Accessed 26 May 2017)


Image [Four Eidophone Diagrams]: Watts- Hughes, M. (1891) Voice Figures, May, Issue 42, pp. 37-39. Available at: Link. (Accessed 26 May 2017)

Image [Eidophone in use]: Bastin, S.L. (1916) Popular Science Monthly, Volume 89, p.925. Available at: Link. (Accessed 26 May 2017)

Image [Three Floral Forms]: Watts- Hughes, M. (1891) Voice Figures, May, Issue 42, pp. 37-39. Available at: Link. (Accessed 26 May 2017)

Image [Voice Figures Cover with Speaker Specifications]: Figure Five One (2017)  All designs within photograph belong to the original owners.