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History of the Atlantic Cable & Undersea Communications
from the first submarine cable of 1850 to the worldwide fiber optic network

The Whitehouse Electric Harmoniograph

Introduction: Edward O.W. Whitehouse, “Wildman Whitehouse” as he generally styled himself, was a surgeon by profession and an electrical experimenter by avocation. In 1856 he was appointed Electrician to the Atlantic Telegraph Company and was responsible for the testing of the 1857/58 cables, and for the design and operation of the equipment which would transmit the telegraph signals between Ireland and Newfoundland.

These news articles on Whitehouse’s Electric Harmoniograph contribute to illustrating the breadth of his interests at the time when he was just beginning to be involved with telegraph experments and the Atlantic cable.

--Bill Burns


The Musical Times and Singing Class Circulars, June 1st, 1855

Note: The Royal Polytechnic Institution at 309 Regent Street was founded in 1838. Its aim was to demonstrate new technologies and inventions to the public. The Polytechnic played a significant role in the popularisation of science and engineering, and it became a major tourist attraction in Victorian London. Its successor is today’s University of Westminster.

at the Royal Polytechnic Institution

Her Majesty and Prince Albert, the Prince of Wales, and several of the Court, paid a private visit to the above popular Institution. Her Majesty and suite arrived soon after 9 o’clock, and were received by J.H. Pepper, Esq., the Manager of the Institution, Professors Faraday and Wheatstone, and Dr. Backhoffner, and several other scientific gentlemen were in attendance. After inspecting and receiving explanations in reference to the working of several interesting features of the exhibition, the Royal party witnessed the beautiful dissolving views, illustrative of the story of “Sinbad the Sailor,” the electric fountain, and the electric light, which gave much satisfaction to the Royal party, Prince Albert making very particular enquiries of the gentlemen in attendance at each department.

The last work of interest inspected by the Royal visitors was a scientific application to pianofortes and harmoniums, “The Electric Harmoniograph,” invented by Wildman Whitehouse, Esq., of Brighton. It records all the music which is played on the instruments, and will be very useful to those who have neither time, nor, probably, the aptitude required for attempting written compositions.

A few words will suffice to explain the peculiarity of the mode of notation necessarily adopted in this instrument. The lines of the treble and bass clefs are ruled pale blue, and the ledger lines, instead of being marked only when a note requiring them is made use of, are all ruled continuously throughout, but of a distinctive colour—pale orange red. The notes are indicated by dark blue lines, instead of dots—the length of these lines marking the relative value of the notes. The naturals record themselves on the lines and in the centre of the spaces; the semi-tones occupy a position mid-way between these—the sharp, of course, above, the flat below its corresponding natural. The division into bars can be effected at the same time, if necessary, by the mere beat of the foot;—it is thought better, however, to leave the performer free from this tax upon his attention, and to calculate the bars afterwards by reference to the notes in accordance with their known value. The marks required for the ruling of the lines, as well as those for the formation of each note in its appropriate position, are equally the result of the current producing electro-chemical decomposition in the texture of the prepared fabric.

Her Majesty and Prince Albert graciously received some specimens of the mode of notation, and viewed the process with interest. Mr.Whitehouse explained the invention, and Mr. Frederick Wright presided at the harmonium, both having received special invitations to attend at the Polytechnic Institution on the occasion.

The Art-Journal, April 1st 1856

Note: I have included the full text of this article, which devotes a long paragraph to Whitehouse’s Electric Harmoniagraph, to show the broad range of interests of Wildman’s circle in his home town of Brighton in the 1850s.


We have had another pleasant soirée at the Pavilion. The number of guests was about eleven hundred, and it is but doing justice to the honorary secretaries of the Brighton Literary and Scientific Institution to say that the arrangements for the evening’s entertainment appeared to give general satisfaction.

The whole suite of state-rooms, five in number, and also the old picture gallery, were thrown open upon the occasion, and the different objects of Art and entertainment were so equally divided and arranged in the different apartments, that, with the exception of the music room, and the picture gallery, which are always crowded, no inconvenience was experienced by the pressure of the large assemblage in any of the apartments.

Commencing our examination with the Banqueting Room, we observed a beautiful and numerous collection of birds of the most brilliant plumage, and many cases of foreign butterflies and moths, among the latter of which were some of enormous Bize. These were exhibited by Mr. Swayeland, whose skill in preserving natural history specimens is well known.

At the end of the room were several models of vessels and steamers. The railway company also contributed, among other articles, a series of models, on a small scale, of the carriages in actual use on the line. Less useful, but more curious, was a model of a locomotive engine seven inches in length, and complete in all its parts, made by Mr. D. Dixon, an engine-driver on the Brighton line, who had employed in constructing this diminutive model the leisure hours of four years and a half. It was pleasant to see the air of gratified pride which beamed on the countenance of the happy and skilful mechanic as he listened to the expressions of admiration elicited from the spectators while examining the diminutive object which had occupied his thoughts and his hands for so long a period. He seemed to look upon his engine with the same affection that a sailor entertains for his ship.

Turning from the machinists, the next object which claimed our attention was a new invention of Mr. Wildman Whitehouse, the same gentleman to whom the sum of £5000 was recently awarded for improvements in the electric telegraph. The new invention is an instrument called the Electric Harmoniograph. It is designed to afford facilities for composition to those who possess a musical ear and taste, but who, not having made music their profession, have neither the time, nor probably the aptitude required, for attempting written composition. It will also be found useful to professors for recording their fugitive thoughts for future reference. A galvanic battery is connected by wires with the keys of the instrument upon which the performer is playing; and, as each note is struck, the electric apparatus records it with proper emphasis on lines produced by the same agency, upon a strip of calico prepared to receive the impression. The notes are indicated by dark-blue lines instead of dots—the length of the lines marking the relative value of the notes. The naturals record themselves on the lines and in the centre of the spaces; the semi-tones occupy a position midway between them—the sharp above, the flat below its corresponding natural. The division into bars can be effected at the time, if necessary, by the mere beat of the foot; it is, however, thought better to calculate the bars afterwards by reference to the notes in accordance with their known value. An improvement is, we are told, contemplated, by which the division into bars will be produced by the same action as the notes. The system may be termed a stenographic or short-hand system of musical notation, the correctness of which, when fully understood, is unavoidable, and a copyist would be able to transcribe any composition with perfect ease, after ascertaining the key and the time intended to be used. The Harmoniograph was, we are informed, exhibited to her Majesty the Queen and Prince Albert by Mr. Whitehouse, the inventor, assisted by Mr. F. Wright, on the occasion of the royal visit to the Polytechnic Institution. At the conversazione Mr. F. Wright again kindly gave his assistance, and afforded explanations to the numbers who crowded round the apparatus. We had the pleasure of receiving, as a specimen of the work, the air of "God Save the Queen."

A Russian swivel gun, capable of carrying two miles, and which was taken at Balaklava, occupied the centre of the room, and was an object of interest to many persons; while some of the younger guests found amusement in watching the activity of the shrimps, as they darted rapidly through the water and among the seaweeds of the aquarium, or the awkward movements of the hermit crab which was restlessly thrusting forth its claws from its new lodging in a whelk shell.

Near the door, a collection of phrenological casts attracted some attention, and some of the guests Buffered their heads to be manipulated by the gentleman who presided over this department. At a later period of the evening, Mr. Collier exhibited the electric light, which astonished by its brilliancy, while it dazzled the eye by its fitful flashes.

The yellow drawing-room was devoted to the exhibition of works of Art. A few paintings lent by different gentlemen were placed on easels around the room. Groups of French paper flowers, made by Miss Crowhurst, of East-street, and collections of shells and sea-weeds, exhibited by Mr. Pike, occupied the end of the room.

One of the most interesting tables was that at which Mr. M Penley presided. Here we noticed a pair of Cellini cups, a pair of Sevres Tazze, and several shell cups lent by Mr. Bright; a silver cup of Indian workmanship, exquisitely chased, and of elaborate and elegant pattern, especially the stem and foot, which displayed that happy adaptation of the design to the form of the object for which Indian artists are so remarkable. The effect of the design on the body of the vase, extremely graceful in itself, would have been more striking had it been less elaborate. This beautiful cup was lent for exhibition by Mrs. Graham. In a glass case near the cup were some Indian ornaments in filigree silver, and some exquisite embroidery in gold from Benares. A case of miniature portraits of the Sikh princes by native artists, were more interesting as studies of Sikh physiognomy than as works of Art, and the beauty of Dhuleep Singh was no less conspicuous than the coarse brutality visible in the countenances of Borne of the other chiefs. A Sikh knife, without ornament, and of remarkably neat workmanship, lay, with its sheath, by the side of the case containing the miniatures of the Sikh princes and warriors, while an Indian shield of stout leather, ornamented with enamelled bosses, was placed on a chair near the other Indian articles.

On the same table was a book containing very interesting illuminations from a MS. missal, attributed to Albert Dürer. The subjects are executed on vellum with body colours; the hair, and many other parts of the figures, are gilded. The subjects are treated with the quaint elaborateness of the period, but some of the figures, especially one of the Saviour, are full of grace and dignity. It would occupy too much space were we to mention all the objects of Art-manufacture and the curiosities which attracted our attention. We noticed a small equestrian statuette of Napoleon in silver, from the Great Exhibition ; and in a glass case near it, an "assignat" of the French republic.

We must not omit to notice an ingenious model belonging to Mr. Penley, of Carisbrook Castle, or the smallest lever watch in the world, made by Mr. G. Funnell of this town.

The photographs were good, but not numerous; some views of Hampstead Heath, and trees under their wintry aspect, pleased us exceedingly. Two views of the sea from the shore would have been admirable studies of the waves, had not the motion of the water rendered them slightly indistinct.

One of the tables was occupied by botanical specimens; among these we remarked an interesting collection of flowering plants from the stoves of the Rev. Mr. Roper, and many varieties of graceful ferns, as well plants as fronds.

In the centre drawing-room, stereoscopes and microscopes divided the attention of the visitor, while, in the further drawing-room, were displayed the collection of minerals belonging to Mr. Turrell, and the fine and valuable fossils of the chalk, lent by Mr. Henry Catt. The collection of sponges was particularly interesting, and many of them very beautiful. Some vertebra: of a whale, and the molar teeth of a fossil elephant, both found in the neighbourhood of Brighton, excited astonishment from their enormous bulk.

During the evening, the company were entertained with music. A concert, in two parts, with an interval of an hour and a half between them, took place in the music room. Herr Kuhe played two solos, while between the parts Mr. Thomas Wright played a grand fantasia on the harp in the banqueting room, and Mr. Sleight afterwards explained and illustrated his mode of educating the deaf and dumb.

A great addition to the pleasures of the evening was the view of the beautiful water-colour drawings from pictures in the private galleries of her Majesty the Queen and Prince Albert These were the copies made for the purpose of being engraved in the Royal Gallery of Art, and Art-Journal; many of the subjects are, therefore, familiar to the readers of this Journal. By the kindness of Mr. S.C. Hall, these pictures were lent for exhibition to the Brighton Society of Arts, and this society liberally threw open the exhibition to the guests assembled on this occasion at the Pavilion. We regret, however, to remark, that while musical talent commands almost any price in Brighton, the number of those who will pay a shilling for the pleasure of seeing pictures is extremely limited. It is saying but little for the taste of a wealthy town, containing nearly 70,000 inhabitants, to express a doubt as to the success of an annual exhibition of paintings; we will therefore hope that our fears are without foundation, and that one of the most luxurious towns of the empire will show at least as much encouragement to the imitative arts as the commercial towns of equal size and equal wealth.


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Last revised: 26 January, 2012

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