(Francis Bacon, 1627)

We have also sound-houses, where we practice and demonstrate all sounds and their generation.  We have harmonies, which you have not, of quarter-sounds and lesser slides of sounds.  Divers instruments of music likewise to you unknown, some sweeter than any you have, together with bells and rings that are dainty and sweet.  We represent small sounds as great and deep, likewise great sounds extenuate and sharp; we make divers tremblings and warblings of sounds, which in their original are entire.  We represent and imitate all articulate sounds and letters, and the voices and notes of beasts and birds.  We have certain helps which set to the ear do further the hearing greatly.  We also have divers strange and artificial echoes, reflecting the voice many times, and as it were tossing it, and some that give back the voice louder than it came, some shriller and some deeper; yea, some rendering the voice differing in the letters or articulate sound from that they receive.  We have also means to convey sounds in trunks and pipes, in strange lines and distances.


This passage from Francis Bacon’s groundbreaking technological utopia The New Atlantis foretells with staggering prescience the musical techniques and technologies that would become ubiquitous in the 20th century. But of course, Bacon was not inventing such ideas out of thin air; many of these devices were already in use in the 17th century or earlier. Many of the phenomena dealt with speculatively in Bacon’s “sound houses” were the object of practical experiments in acoustics described in his Sylva Sylvarum, written in 1623 but published (like The New Atlantis) posthumously in 1627.
Bacon was among the first European intellectuals to emphasize the importance of instruments, which had hitherto been denigrated as belonging to the realm of material and manual labor, as opposed to pure knowledge. In his Novum Organum, he wrote, “Neither the naked hand nor the understanding left to itself can effect much. It is by instruments and helps that the work is done, which are as much wanted for the understanding as for the hand.”
Text: Francis Bacon, New Atlantis (unfinished, published 1626)
Image: Lowell Hess, in Edward A. Hamilton, Graphic Design for the Computer Age: Visual Communication for All Media (Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1970); reproduced by Endless Forms Most Beautiful (image cropped)