(Louis-Sébastien Mercier, 1771)

What related to acoustics was not less miraculous. They had acquired the art of imitating all the articulations of the human voice, of the cries of animals, and the various notes of birds. By touching certain springs we seemed to be instantly transported to some wild forest, where we heard the roarings of the lion, the tiger, and the bear, who seemed to be in conflict with each other. The noise rent the ear. You would have said that the echo, still more terrible, repeated at a distance those horrid and barbarous cries. But soon the songs of nightingales succeeded to those discordant sounds. By their harmonious organs each particle of the air became melodious; the ear discerned even the tremblings of their amorous wings, and those tender and enchanting sounds which the voice of man can never perfectly imitate. To the intoxication of pleasure was joined the sweet surprise, and the voluptuous sensation that arose from this happy union seized every heart.

This people, who had constantly a moral aim even in the prodigies of art, had happily deduced an advantage from this surprising invention. When a young prince talked of combats, or discovered a warlike disposition, they conducted him to a room, which they properly named the Hell. The artist immediately put the springs in motion, and saluted his ear with all the horrors of a battle, the cries of rage and of grief; the lamentations of the dying; the sounds of terror; the bellowing of that hideous thunder which is the signal of destruction and bears the execrable sound of death. If nature did not then prevail on his mind, if he did not send forth a cry of horror, if his countenance remained unmoved and placid, he was confined to that room for the remainder of his days. Every morning, however, they repeated a piece of this music, that he might be satisfied without the destruction of the human race.

With The Year 2440, French writer Louis-Sébastian Mercier pioneered a setting that has since framed many imaginary musical instruments: the future. The novel tells of a Parisian who wakes up nearly seven hundred years later – the year 2440 – to find society much improved. Banned in France due to its criticism of the social and political situation of the day, the book became highly popular, enjoying wide circulation and prompt translation into numerous languages.
The acoustical wonders of 2440 appear in “The King’s Cabinet,” a vast collection of natural specimens and human inventions. Resembling actual ‘cabinets of physics’ in which lecturers demonstrated scientific principles to eighteenth-century audiences, the cabinet attests to the intertwined moral and scientific progress of society: in the future, sovereigns devote national resources to knowledge rather than to war. The acoustical instrument featured in the cabinet plays an important role in this context. By realistically reproducing the sounds of war, the “springs” teach the King its pain and suffering and dissuade him from permitting its horrors. This use of technology for moral education accords with the Enlightenment understanding of the purpose of art, while the choice of acoustics reflects the idea that sound is superior to sight in eliciting sympathy. Mercier’s vibrating springs provide an Enlightenment era counterpart to Lucian’s Bull of Phalaris and Bacon’s Sound-Houses and a striking example of how sound reproduction was imagined before the advent of phonography.
Text: Memoirs of the Year Two Thousand Five Hundred, trans.by W. Hooper (1772)
Image: Lecture demonstration in a cabinet of physics from Jean-Antoine Nollet, Leçons de physique expérimentale, vol. 1 (Durand, 1767)