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.
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.
 Newby. H.A & Popelka G.R, Audiology ( Prentice Hall Inc, 1985)p.104-105
 J. Blauert, The Psychophysics of Human Sound Localisation, (MIT Press, 1997)
 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.
 BMJ Nov 17th, 1928
 M.Ng & R.K. Jackler, ‘Early History of Tuning Fork Tests’ p.105