Fall 2012

Listening to the Cooler

Taking the temperature with the thermophone

Michael Osman

To obtain the value of a sound, a movement, measure from zero.
—John Cage, “2 Pages, 122 Words on Music and Dance,” 1957

The instrument is used as follows: while turning a dial, graduated to indicate the temperature in degrees Fahrenheit, the user hears a tone, a buzz from a telephone receiver. When the dial approaches a point at which the current is balanced between two leads in a coil each made from a different metal, the tone goes silent. It is at this moment, in silence, that the instrument offers a temperature reading. Tone is noise, while silence signals information.

The instrument is a thermophone, a combination of the Greek words for heat and voice. It “speaks the temperature,” translating an environmental condition into sound and then silence. Unlike musical instruments that are tuned to produce harmonic frequencies for making art, the thermophone is used for tuning into an environment by establishing an electrical harmony of zero frequency. It is a particular form of technological synesthesia, as the sense of heat becomes (in)audible.1

The design of the electrical circuitry for the thermophone resulted from a collaboration in the 1890s between biologist George C. Whipple of the Chestnut Hill Reservoir Biological Laboratory and inventor Henry E. Warren. They claimed that the value of the device lay in “obtaining the temperature of a distant or inaccessible place,” though it also determined temperatures with greater accuracy than could be obtained with a “mercurial thermometer.”2 It was particularly useful for Whipple, who was employed by the Western Division of the Boston Water Works to improve the water quality in the Chestnut Hill Reservoir. To collect data about the dynamics of heat in the water, he dropped thermophone coils to varying depths in the reservoir and Lake Cochituate, another source for the city’s water supply. During his daily boat rides over the span of a year, he listened to his portable instrument as it went silent, mapping the temperatures of the deep liquid mass beneath.

This collection of measurements was made to establish a correlation between temperature and the seasonal distribution of microorganisms in the reservoir. Bostonians had grown intolerant of the putrid smells and strange colors that arrived in their drinking water as a result of these particular forms of life. In his writings, Whipple explained that the quantity of food, constituted by a particular congregation of lake algae, was directly related to the survival of these pests. His theory traced an indirect relationship between water temperature and population growth. Putting the temperatures of every point in the lake at every moment in a year on the record was a form of medical inspection that Whipple performed on a sick body, or more precisely, on a sick body of water. The specific locations of infections and the patterns of their appearance through the year offered the Boston Water Works a map for regulating the risky growth of unwanted life in the reservoir.3

Subscribe to access our entire archive.
Log In and read it now.