Author Archives: Coreen Anne McGuire

About Coreen Anne McGuire

PhD Candidate at the University of Leeds studying hearing loss and early twentieth century technology.

HPS in 20 Objects Lecture 8 – Brain Knife

The second HPS in 20 Lecture of this academic term has kept to the exceptional standard we have come to expect from this series. Like all of these talks, one central object was used to catalyse a discussion that ended up being extremely wide-ranging; taking us to considerations of the very nature of our being. However, the lecture began with PhD researcher and museum expert Laura Sellers explaining how the museum had come into possession of what initially seemed to be a rather ordinary looking Knife. Rather like the ones my Gran used to keep. However, this was in fact a knife used for dissecting the brains of the dead. Laura pointed out that it had been designed with a small horn handle and a disproportionately long blade in order that its users could wield it with the requisite delicacy for long cutting strokes through soft tissue. And who were these delicate users? Most likely, they were teachers and researchers working in Pathology at Leeds in the Algernon Firth Institute or Thoresby Place.


School of Pathology on St. George Street opened in 1933 by Algernon Firth

We were then shown images of the places and contexts in which these tools would have been used, leading up to the site of the current Medical School in the ‘concrete extravaganza’ that is the Worsley Building. I had just the week before started working in administration in the medical school and delighted at telling my new colleagues the next day that the Medical School had just had its 850th birthday on the 25th of October. Turns out I had misheard this and it was actually 185 years old.  They were either too polite or too sorry for me to point out my ridiculous error. Luckily there was nothing ridiculous in the main body of the lecture, which was given by Marie Curie Fellow Dr Sean Dyde.


Van Aeken, Cure of Folly or the Extraction of the Stone of Madness, 1485

Sean began his discussion of the brain knife by giving some context about why people have traditionally cut into brains and indeed into skulls, and pointed out that the notion of the mind being connected to the brain isn’t actually an especially Western idea. He then moved onto explain how he would situate the mind brain dichotomy in a particular discussion of the Age of Enlightenment, that is, the eighteenth century. Sean was clearly passionate about this subject matter and he really came into his own here, with some really lovely turns of phrase used to describe this period: ‘an Age of Improvement, an Age of Refinement, an Age of absolute monarchs, an Age of Enlightenment. A time of new wealth, paper money, stock bubbles and market crashes; Greco-Roman architecture, English gardens and Gin Lanes.’

At this point, perhaps predictably, but clearly necessarily, Descartes came in. It would be bizarre indeed to describe conceptions of the mind in the 17th and 18th century without resource to the Cartesian method. However, Sean did not relate the brain knife to philosophy in isolation; he took us on a fast paced tour of literature, politics, drugs, and science.

The Nightmare by Henry Fuseli



Sean was able to condense a great deal of complicated ideas into an entertaining and provocative lecture, which I found thoroughly enjoyable. My favourite parts probably centre round his discussion of Tristram Shandy (a book I have not read, but now intend to) and his ideas about the relationship of the romantics to God, art, and opium. The link between nineteenth century phrenology and a recent paper in the journal Nature, in which its authors highlighted 360 localised areas of the brain, provoked the most questions from the audience. There was in fact so much in the lecture that I’m really struggling to provide a succinct summary of the diverse areas it touched upon. Of course it was a subject area that I am well familiar with, but my friend Amy (a physiology researcher) said that she had loved learning about medicine in such a different way. It should not only be recommended for its variety, but also for the elegant prose Sean used throughout. I suppose what I want to get across is how interesting and entertaining this was, and highly recommend that anyone reading this should also watch the recording below.

As always though, these lectures are best experienced live, and the selection of objects on display at this one was particularly fascinating (or particularly disgusting depending on your sensibilities). A preserved sheep’s brain and wax models of embryonic development of the brain were used to good effect to illustrate points in the lecture, and we were invited to take a closer look at the end. On Tuesday the 22nd of November we are going to be treated to an Anthrax ridden finger floating in a jar, and I, for one, cannot wait.

Good Vibrations Part Two.

These Tuning fork tests give qualitative rather than quantitative results. It was not until the invention of the telephone in 1876 that quantitative data on hearing loss could be compiled through the use of the audiometer, which was invented by David Edward Hughes just two years later, in 1879.

The audiometer is an instrument that is integral to many of the themes of my thesis on telephony and hearing loss, as an instrument developed from the telephone in order to measure and classify widespread hearing loss, particularly in the military. Despite being developed at the end of the 19th century however, it was not until after the Second World War that it gained widespread acceptance. This is because it became necessary to test many people quickly and have a numerical result that could be compared before and after service in order to award or refuse compensation for noise induced hearing loss. The audiometer had not been taken up previously largely due to practitioners reluctance to use the more complicated instrument when tests like the watch tick test, spoken voice (Smellen) test or tuning fork test were far simpler. Debates over the utility of these tests intensified in Britain after the First World War, when doctors were faced with treating soldiers suffering from both noise induced hearing loss and temporary hearing loss caused by shell shock.

In 1928, the British Medical Journal devoted an article to a report on the issue of tests and classification of hearing, in which various medical authorities held forth on the subject. Mr Somerville Hasting started the debate with the statement that he was convinced that, from the point of view of scientific advance, arbitrary units of hearing must be given up.’ He was met with the response that, ‘ For distance-tests a watch was useful, but the instrument known as the electrical audiometer, while valuable for research, was, he considered, impossible for ordinary clinical use, owing to its complication and lack of portability. Tuning-forks yielded accurate results.’

The endurance of tuning forks may also lie, as M.Ng & R.K. Jackler imply, in their ‘appeal to other for their elegant simplicity’.In my mind, there is certainly something intrinsically satisfying in the process of striking these cool steel devices against a hard surface to create a resounding and resonating ting.

Tuning fork frequency demonstration.

The tuning forks featured in these videos and photographs are just a small part of the wonderful linguistic and phonetics collection held within the museum of History, Science and Medicine at Leeds (HSTM).  In the background to the video and the featured image in this post are a beautiful collection of books describing the dialects of India, which also contain annotations by Professor Daniel Jones, who was one of the people who inspired George Bernard Shaw to write the character of Henry Higgins (Alexander Melville Bell, Alexander Graham Bell’s Grandfather has also been cited as inspiring this role).  Professor Daniel Jones was involved with the Leeds phonetic department when it began in 1947.

The tuning forks were also part of the equipment held by the department at its inception and they range over an octave at frequencies 256-512 kHz. This indicates that these were musical tuning forks, possibly used to tune instruments rather than test hearing. Modern concert pitch (or international standard pitch) was only established in America in 1939 so it is unsurprising that this earlier British set does not correspond to these frequencies. The forks were manufactured in Sheffield, an industrial town close to Leeds, famous for manufacturing more conventional crockery as part of its steel industry.

These tuning forks are now on display as part of the ‘Hidden Histories’ exhibition, which is situated, most appropriately for this example, in the foyer between the department of philosophy, religion and history of science and the department of linguistics and phonetics. Check out the exhibition to see why they are my favourite thing in the museum and see more objects that other students have a particular affinity with.

Good Vibrations Part One


[1] Newby. H.A & Popelka G.R, Audiology ( Prentice Hall Inc, 1985)p.104-105

[1] J. Blauert, The Psychophysics of Human Sound Localisation, (MIT Press, 1997)

[1] M.Kay, ‘Making uses for telephone instruments: the health, safety and security innovations of medical, mining and military users’ in Inventing telephone usage: debating ownership, entitlement and purpose in early British telephony.

[2] BMJ Nov 17th, 1928

[4] M.Ng & R.K. Jackler, ‘Early History of Tuning Fork Tests’ p.105

Good Vibrations Part One.

‘Theoretically there was no normal hearing power, but practically there was, and was found to vary from 32 to 35,000 vibrations per second. This could be tested by properly constructed tuning-forks, as oculists tested by lenses the normal visual range.’  – Professor Marcel Natier in the British Medical Journal, 1904.

University of Leeds Phonetics Department Tuning Forks.

University of Leeds Phonetics Department Tuning Forks.

The tuning fork is a fascinating object because its history reveals how theories of sound, music, hearing loss and communication have intersected in the past to inform the way we measure hearing loss today. The possibility of hearing through bone conduction by vibrations travelling through the bones around our ears had been discovered in 1550 but it was not until 1711 that the tuning fork was invented to utilise the potential of this discovery. John Shore, trumpet and lute player in the Royal Court, was attributed with its invention as a musical instrument, which allegedly came about because he had split his lip and was unable to play his trumpet.Tuning forks became widely used in music for tuning purposes and for establishing pitch rather than as instruments in themselves because they produce pure tones.

In 1827, Sir Charles Wheatstone was the first to use the tuning fork to assess hearing and realised that when both ears were blocked, sound lateralised (travelled) to the side nearest to the origin of the sound. Wheatstone is famed for his work with telegraphy and for inventions like the Wheatstone bridge and the Cooke -Wheatstone telegraph yet there is less known about his role in establishing standards for hearing testing. He grew up in a musical family however and was for some time apprentice to a musical instrument maker, which may indicate his interest in tuning forks. His interest could be explained further by the fact that studies of acoustics were proliferating in the late nineteenth century, especially as comparative pieces to the more widely studied subject, optics, as the epigraph to this piece also suggests. The late nineteenth century is notable furthermore because it was a time in which measurement and standardisation became of defining importance to science and tuning forks were used in this way to define standards of pitch and frequency, which were then related to speech and to hearing.

Wheatstone’s essential role in developing hearing tests as well as pioneering telegraphy further points to the close link between hearing loss and communication. It is well known that Alexander Graham Bell attributed his invention of the telephone to his work with the deaf and more recently historians like Mara Mills have described how measuring and classifying normal hearing and hearing loss was essential to the development of the telephone network.

The Weber Test.

In 1834, Ernst Heinrich Weber realised that Charles Wheatstone’s discovery could be used to differentiate between conductive and sensori-neural hearing loss when there is either a unilateral hearing loss or a difference in hearing between one ear and the other. This works by placing the handle of a vibrating tuning fork in the centre of the skull. If the sound is heard in the better ear this indicates sensori-neural hearing loss but if it is heard in the worst eat, this indicates conductive hearing loss. This works because when someone has sensori-neural hearing loss, the sound is localised through bone conduction in the better ear but for someone with bone conductive hearing loss the sound travels (is localised) to the worst ear. Although various kinds of tuning fork hearing tests proliferated in the late 19th and early 20th century, the Weber Test and the Rinne test were the most common and remain in use today.

Weber test demonstration.

The Rinne Test.

Heinrich Adolf Rinne developed this hearing test in 1855 in order to differentiate between conductive hearing loss and sensori-neural hearing loss. This works by measuring how long the tuning fork tone can be heard thorough air conduction (by holding the fork close to the ear) compared to bone conduction (by placing the handle of the fork on the mastoid).  If the fork is heard longer through bone conduction then this indicates conductive loss but if it is heard longer through air conduction then this indicates sensori-neural loss.By 1985, it was established that these tests were to be conducted by using forks vibrating at C on the scientific scale through frequencies 128hz- 8192 hz. This roughly reflected the frequency at which most speech is usually heard, on a spectrum from 16hz to 20khz.

Rinne Test Demonstration.

Thank you to Anne Hanley and Sean McNally – the stars of the featured videos!

Good Vibrations Part Two


Blauert J, The Psychophysics of Human Sound Localisation, (MIT Press, 1997)

Mills M, ‘Deafening: Noise and the Engineering of Communication in the Telephone System’ in Grey Room, Spring Issue, No. 43, (Inc. and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology 2011) pp.118-14

Newby. H.A & Popelka G.R, Audiology ( Prentice Hall Inc, 1985)p.104-105

Ng, M & Jackler R K, ‘Early History of Tuning Fork Tests’ in History of Otology (The American Journal of Otology) Vol. 19, No.1, Jan 1993 (pp 100-105)

Rees T, ‘Historical notes: a brief chronicle of the tuning fork’, in  Explore Whipple Collections, Whipple Museum of the History of Science, University of Cambridge, 2009 <,&gt; (accessed 20 November 2014]