Optophone 1

The optophone was not a figure of Joyce’s creative imagination — Tis optophone which ontophanes  (FW 13:15) — but a real instrument described in a Royal Society notice in 1914 as follows:

On a type-reading optophone
E. E. Fournier D’Albe
Communicated1 by Sir Oliver Lodge, F.R.S.2
The production of sounds directly or indirectly due to the incidence of light is the general function of instruments of the type of Graham Bell’s “photophone.” An instrument designed to solve the more special problem of substituting the sense of hearing for the sense of sight is more appropriately termed an “optophone.” Having concerned myself for a number of years with this special problem (…) an instrument has resulted which should, with some practice, enable totally blind persons to read 
ordinary books and newspapers through the sense of hearing. (…) I wish to thank (…) especially Sir Oliver Lodge for the kind interest he has taken in the whole investigation.3

A short description of a somewhat later iteration of the optophone is given in the Genetic Joyce online journal:

The apparatus consisted of a vertical arrangement of five light sources and detectors that was scanned across printed characters, each detector corresponding to a note on the musical stave with the amplitude indicating the amount of reflected light. In this way a blind person could interpret the tone as a letter and piece together words.

For McLuhan the “optophone principle”, the power of translation of one sense into another — in human beings and now in machines — pointed backwards to his study of ‘the common sense’ with Bernard Muller-Thym when they both were teaching at St Louis University. In 1940 Muller-Thym published ‘Common Sense, Perfection of the Order of Pure Sensibility’ which focused particularly on the notion of ‘common sense’ in Aristotle and Thomas.4 And behind that were McLuhan’s sessions at Cambridge in the middle 1930s with Arthur Quiller-Couch, the doyen of the English school, on Aristotle’s Poetics.5 At the same time it pointed forwards to “the medium is the message” where the medium is the fulcrum or crossroads of the senses as the generator of experiential life-worlds: Tis optophone which ontophanes

Human history had come to a decisive juncture (and not only for humans, but for all the beings unhappily sharing the biosphere with humans). By outering the power of “the common sense”, but doing so only in the physical sciences and not at the same time also in the social sciences, humankind had created a danger that was potentially suicidal for itself and murderous for all its fellow species. This was the background to McLuhan working on a “survival strategy” and the key to this strategy was guessed in 1954 with the “opto( )phone principle”.6


  1. Notices in the  Proceedings seem to have been limited to Fellows of the Royal Society (F.R.S.) or to “communications” from them.
  2. Sir Oliver was the uncle of McLuhan’s University of Manitoba mentor, Rupert Lodge. It may be that McLuhan was able to follow Oliver Lodge’s stellar scientific career through his nephew, who would certainly have followed it closely. 
  3. E. E. Fournier D’Albe, Proceedings of the Royal Society Avol 90 issue 619, 373-375, July 1914. Fournier D’Albe was the author  of Two New Worlds: I. The Infra-World; II. The Supra-World (1907) and The Moon-Element: an Introduction to the Wonders of Selenium (1924), in which the optophone is extensively described. He also wrote Quo Vadimus? Glimpses of the Future (1925) which Joyce is known to have read (or heard read!) early in the composition of FW. Furthermore, in 1923 Fournier D’Albe was the first person to transfer a photograph by wireless telegraphy — an important step towards television: “There is, however, nothing in the way of ‘coding’ a picture, i.e. dividing it into a large number of dots and indicating the average shading of each dot or patch by a letter, which is telegraphed in the usual way. Such a transmission of a coded picture was made by the Author on May 24, 1923. It was, however, not transmitted by telegraph wire, but by wireless radiotelephony (…) It was the first attempt ever made to broadcast a picture (…) Such rapid transmission of pictures bring us within measurable distance of the solution of what is known as the problem of ‘television’ or electric vision at a distance. Let us state the problem. A scene or object to be transmitted may be regarded as a changing picture. In order to reproduce it at the receiving end, the picture must be then presented as rapidly as a kinema picture, which changes some twenty times per second. If we can, therefore, transmit a picture in a twentieth of a second, we have solved the problem of ‘television’.” (The Moon-Element, 77, 81, 82).
  4. Muller-Thym published his essay when he and McLuhan were best friends and Muller-Thym was giving McLuhan a crash course in Catholic theology and its Greek background. McLuhan’s copy of the paper, or one of them, is still to be found in his library at Fisher Library, University of Toronto. Its notations do not date from his SLU years, however. They appear to have been made in the 1960s. But the fact that he was rereading the paper then is telling.
  5. See McLuhan’s letter to his family from February 7, 1935: “just returned from the Divinity School where ‘Q’ recommenced his course on the Poetics of Aristotle” (Letters, 57). In his letter McLuhan notes that only one other student attended Q’s course that day and that the session ended up discussing Shakespeare. So the ‘course’ was practically a tutorial with one of the great literary figures of the time on the question of the foundations of the tradition in figures like Aristotle and Shakespeare. The superb quality of McLuhan’s training at Cambridge as a relatively mature student has never yet been properly appreciated (nor his preparation for it in his work with Rupert Lodge in Winnipeg).
  6. Fournier D’Albe saw, a century ago, at the same time of his work on the optophone, that “the energies of ‘civilised’ humanity were concentrated on mutual destruction”. (Moon Element, 111).