A few folks have been asking me about the cover of e.s.p. so here’s the relevant info:  It’s a detail of a rendering of Professor Mayer’s Topophone that appeared in the July 3, 1880 issue of Scientific American.

Here are a few excerpts from the article:

The aim of the topophone, which was invented and patented by Professor A. M. Mayer, last winter, is to enable the user to determine quickly and surely the exact direction and position of any source of sound. Our figure shows a portable style of the instrument; for use on ship-board it would probably form one of the fixtures of the pilot-house or the “bridge,” or both. In most cases arising in sailing through fogs, it would be enough for the captain or pilot to be sure of the exact direction of a fog horn, whistling buoy, or steam whistle; and for this a single aural observation suffices.

Briefly described, the topophone consists of two resonators (or any other sound receivers) attached to a connecting bar or shoulder rest. The sound receivers are joined by flexible tubes, which unite for part of their length, and from which ear tubes proceed. One tube, it will be observed, carries a telescopic device by which its length can be varied. When the two resonators face the direction whence a sound comes, so as to receive simultaneously the same sonorous impulse, and are joined by tubes of equal length, the sound waves received from them will necessarily re-enforce each other and the sound will be augmented. If, on the contrary, the resonators being in the same position as regards the source of sound, the resonator tubes differ in length by half the wave length of the sound, the impulse from the one neutralizes that from the other, and the sound is obliterated.

From 1871 until his death in 1897, Alfred Mayer was a Professor of Physics at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey.  His major papers include “The Determination of the Law Connecting the Pitch of a Sound with the Duration of Its Residual Sensation,” “On the Effects of Magnetization in Changing the Dimensions of Iron and Steel Bars,” “Experiments with Floating Magnets,”  and “On Measures of Absolute Radiation.”  What great titles– the last one sounds like it could be a Stevens poem.

…and, by the way, e.s.p. is now available at SPD.

~ by Michael Leong on December 14, 2009.


  1. It’s a great cover, and a great illustration of a poetics.

  2. Nice. I wondered about the source of the image myself.

  3. Sadly, the promise of the Topophone was never realized. The theory behind it’s construction was sound except for a crucial detail, foghorns generate complex layers of sound waves and a one-size-fits-all adjustment of the resonators was not fine tuned enough for the device to work. Additional work on the Topophone may have solved the problem, there would have to be accomodations to allow the resonators to be adjusted in real-time to each fog horn encountered. Mayer was more of a thinker, a theoretical scientist and he didn’t have the patience for the work needed. The Topophone was retired as a worthless invention, it never guided any ships anywhere. We’ve been researching Mayer ever since we came upon a first edition of the seminal work by his student Rudolph Koenig, who surpassed his master in making significant contributions to the physics of sound. The book, d’ acoustique, is at google books and features many fine engravings of more fantastic instruments for studying sound. Our copy of this book is distinguished by the fact that it is warmly inscribed by Koenig to Mayer, about as important an association copy as one could hope for.

    • Thanks so much for the comment and the tip about the Koenig text — I will certainly check that out. That’s amazing that you have an inscribed copy to Mayer!

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