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  • Early Bionic Ear August 24, 2015

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Modern , trackback


    Hans Jakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen (obit 1676) was a seventeenth-century German author with a penchant for fantasy. Here is an invention dreamt up for one of his novels. In Simplicius Simplicissimus (published 1668) he wrote this extraordinary passage.

    And when I had fancies, and lay awake many a night thinking how might contrive new finds and stratagems, I had very curious notions; consequently, I bethought myself of an instrument with which I could, on a calm night, hear a trumpet being blown three hours’ distance and a horse neighing and a dog barking two hours’ away, and a man talking one hours’ distance. In the daytime the instrument was not so useful to me, unless it were in a quiet place, because one would have heard the horses and the cattle down to the bird in the air, or frog in the water, all together, so that one would not have understood one in consequence of the noise of the other. Now I know quite well that there are people at this very hour who do not believe me; but, whether they believe me or not, it is the truth. I undertake, by means of an instrument invented by me, to recognise at night by his voice a man who does not speak louder than is his usual custom. And no one would believe me of those who saw with their own eyes how I used the aforesaid instrument, and when I said to them, ‘I hear horsemen galloping, for the horses are shod,’ or ‘I hear peasants, for the men barefooted’ then ‘there goes herd of cattle, for I hear bleating, bulls bellowing, and pigs grunting’, and so forth, my own comrades first took those speeches for ‘fibs.’ But when they found that I was speaking the truth, then they called it witchcraft, taught me secretly by the devil’s own mother. I am of the opinion that if I had taught this science openly I should have become very popular, because it would have proved of great advantage to those engaged in war, especially in sieges.

    Beach has never read Simplicius Simplicissimus but he found this passage in a late nineteenth-century source (1894) that compared the invention to the telephone. That seems to tell us far more about how the telephone was seen in 1894, than it does about what Grimmelshausen’s machine really does. It is more like, in modern terms, an extraordinarily efficient bionic ear or biodish: the kinds used by the police or private detectives on stake outs when they want to hear what x or y is saying in the room across the streets. Does it have any antecedents or is this just Grimmelshausen’s raw imagination: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com