Basic question

Armed with a special type of extremely responsive leather, and with giant civilizations willing to pour every resource they have into this problem, after discovering the concept of recording sound waves, could a useable type of phonograph be created in the Bronze Age?

When I say every resource I mean it. Rulers with a similar power to the Egyptian Pharaohs enlisting hundreds of thousands to experiment with this technology every year while the crops grow in, for decades if not centuries to figure out something .


Okay. So I have this species. They communicate a bit like dolphins, they do not have a language where certain sounds mean other things, they just have echolocation and the ability to recreate the echo patterns of 3D scenes. There’s often a bit of metaphor and memes to represent more abstract things like asking a question or someone saying something, but overall they can express any idea that we can with our language.

But they also don’t really have the ability to conceive of something like written language. The idea of something standing for something else is already an extremely unusual idea to them.

And the world to them is such a 3D place it would never occur to them to try to represent things with 2D images.

The closest thing they have is elaborate diagrams. These are expensive, time consuming to produce, and require a lot of space to store, making it very difficult for information to be recorded.

So they need a way to record sound. And they need to get it to it before written language, at least in the way we think of it.

They do have a music instrument though that involves a horn with a diaphragm on the end made of a specially treated type of leather that vibrates as it’s played.

Someone eventually tries attaching a needle to this diaphragm and running it over a clay tablet while speaking into it, and observes that different sounds seem to change the resulting pattern confirming that sound waves were indeed being recorded.

When word of this gets to the nobility, they instantly recognize they instantly see the potential of sound recording. They already spend devote more resources than similar rulers devote to their armies to train an army of sculptors, source clay, and maintain vast city sized store houses of dioramas. Expressing the amount of information contained in a book would take an entire room, and take decades to produce.

So no expense is too much. Even food production is secondary to creating a way to record and play back sound.

The way I picture it working is that it’s a hand cranked device that uses a needle attached to a specially treated leather diaphragm to imprint on a wax cylinder, like the first phonographs.

These devices are operated by a caste of professionals called turners, that have trained their entire life for this task. They can turn the crank at a steady, exact speed. They can also find the exact speed a recording was made with by ear and replicate it. They use a specially designed system of communication that uses extremely exaggerated imagery.

Is this at all reasonable?

  • $\begingroup$ Leather records or wax records? $\endgroup$
    – o.m.
    Feb 18 at 9:08
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ "They do not have a language where certain sounds mean other things": Then they do not have a language full stop. The basic requirement for a communication system to be considered a language (in the linguistics meaning of the word) is for the signs (e.g., words, or hand gestures, or whatever) to be able to stand for other signs. They most definitely cannot express "any idea that we can with our language". John said that he believed that Mike was lying when he said he had seen a tiger. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Feb 18 at 9:22
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ "The idea of something standing for something else is already an extremely unusual idea to them." and "The closest thing they have is elaborate diagrams" are mutually exclusive. Why would a set of things on something would mean something other than a set of things on something? $\endgroup$
    – L.Dutch
    Feb 18 at 9:30
  • $\begingroup$ A few clarifications needed: 1) How many ears do they have? 2) What's the frequency-range of their echo-location? 3) What's the depth-of-field that they're able to perceive/see? 4) In evolutionary terms, did they have any predators - and did those predators have good hearing? (I'm trying to guage the sound energy involved in their "sonar" cries.) $\endgroup$ Feb 18 at 11:30
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @Escapeddentalpatient. yeah I’ve been having a lot of fun trying to imagine how they might communicate things. But ultimately at a fundamental level, pantomiming, metaphor, and visual imagery can get you really far. But the structure of the story is going to be more of a Shaka when the walls fell kinda deal. Xeno- anthropologist and her team attempt to break the communication barrier asking her self the same questions yall are while they ask the same. An excuse to imagine a society based around a fundamentally alien communication system $\endgroup$
    – Alex
    Feb 18 at 13:33

3 Answers 3


It is possible, but very odd.

Have a look at Archeoacoustics, and scroll down the the section labelled 'discredited theories'. People have tried to reconstruct sounds from the surface of pots, and oil paintings on canvas. Some sounds have been recreated but no recognisable words. However, if you had a rotating clay cylinder, you could record phonograph-style messages, fire the clay to make it permanent, and play it back.

However, the phonograph came after the Phonautograph. This was a device that captured the patterns of sound waves using a bristle drawing a line in smoke-coated paper or glass. These could not play back the sound because the patterns were too delicate to follow mechanically, but it probably prompted the phonograph.

We have Edison's sketch for the first phonograph. He used a piece of paper to draw what he wanted his engineer to make. The earliest known art is a representation of three-dimensional scenes on flat surfaces. People blind from birth can learn and use 2D representations of 3D scenes.

I cannot prove a negative. Someone might have made a neolithic phonograph. However, we needed to understand the physics of sound, then image sound waves, and then make the image something solid that we could play back. It does not seem plausible to do all of this without having any recorded language or sketching or diagram of the apparatus to be built.

  • $\begingroup$ Yeah the Photoautograph is part of my inspiration for this. To simplify: this species can speak and communicate just fine through sound but they are incapable of ever creating something like written language. They need to get sound recordings in order to get the equivalent of written language. You can’t do science without some way of recording information. $\endgroup$
    – Alex
    Feb 18 at 11:51
  • $\begingroup$ the big problem is firing the clay, which will drastically alter the sounds. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Feb 18 at 19:27

And they need to get it to it before written language, at least in the way we think of it

That's your deal killer.

Could they do it? Sure! There's nothing about the metals available to bronze-age peoples that forbid the manufacture of an Edison-style cylinder phonograph. Even the wax for the cylinders would be available, and if they're looking for durable archive, hand-etch.

What's holding them back?

I've no doubt that people have wished to record audio for millennia... but the mathematics and physics needed for someone to say "Ah-hah!" and build a prototype takes time... and writing... to accomplish.

But is it impossible?

Musical horns existed in at least the late Bronze age. Consider the lurs and Dord, so the basic idea of how to make noise louder existed. It's believable that your blind species using echolocation would think to use horns to improve echolocation over a distance just as we use binoculars.

Drums have existed since long before the Bronze age, so the basic idea of vibration causing noise also existed. Your species could both hear and feel the vibrations, so this leap is believable, too.

But where you get stuck is the idea of using a stylus combined with a horn to etch vibration into wax (or any other substance). The concept of that stylus existed for humanity because we've been applying graffiti to walls with charcoal sticks absolutely forever (modern humans use crayons, but hey, a burnt stick is a burnt stick). But your blind species would have no reason whatsoever to know what a stylus is or how one could be used to transcribe sound into a surface for reproduction. I'm having a lot of trouble trying to figure out how they'd make that intuitive leap without the invention of their form of Braille.

However, once they've invented braille, then it's very plausible for them to develop rudimentary music box (picture below compliments of that link).

Music Box Drum

Music boxes hit their height in the late 1800s and early 1900s and produced beautiful sound.

Could your species have made the comb? Maybe not in the bronze age, but they could have made hammers tripped by the drum, not unlike a piano. The point here is, it's believable.

enter image description here

Now we're getting somewhere!

But can you mimic voice with a music box comb? I ask you frankly...

What's a voice?

I don't know if anyone tried to mimic a human voice using a music box. It's not impossible. Like any technology, perfection is a function of precision. Given a large enough comb and a dense enough metal disk or drum, you bet, a human voice could be mimicked.

But does that matter?

"Language" is the means of communication, and if this developed before any form of written language, it likely would define the written language. In other words, your average human music box is completely capable of representing concepts and meaning via sound as the human voice can. Just because your species' manifest word for "hello" sounds more like a strum along harp strings doesn't make it in any way less of a language.

Which means that the creation of audio recording is the fundamental invention of the written language. All it takes is someone thinking, "you know, if I run my fingers over this then I could understand it without the comb, the spring, or anything else... funny, that.

Having suggested a solution, I'm going to conclude with "no"

Here's the problem: I've posited a solution that, given the right story background, could believably allow a blind species in the bronze age to develop a means of recording sound. We're going to handwave the precision of the tooling because, frankly, swiss watchmakers in the 1700s proved that patience is the key to believably making amazingly precise things. Like gears or braille/slotted metal disks or cylinders.

The real problem here is that I have not introduced a way to record anything.

That horn connected to a stylus wiggling on a wax cylinder really was a breathtaking innovation. What to us today was a barbaric, primitive, and obvious solution was for those who contributed to its development, nothing short of absolutely brilliant.

But I can't figure out how to record anything via a music box cylinder or disk.

Let's assume the mechanically simpler path of punching holes or slots into a metal disk. Could we envision a horn connected to something (you know, the proverbial "magic happens here" part of the flow chart) that's then connected to a punch. The punch(es) are positioned to strike then advance the disk in a manner similar to Edison's phonograph advancing the stylus across the cylinder.

But can we figure out what that something can be?

That's where I'm stumped. The vibrations of sound captured by the horn are conveniently translated to vibrations of the stylus. In other words, the proverbial gazintas and gazoutas are fundamentally the same thing: vibration. But now we need to somehow discriminate between frequencies so we know which punch to activate.

And I'm lost with that one. I'm an electrical engineer. Maybe a mechanical engineer could explain how to isolate frequencies using a mechanical process.

So, at this point the answer is no. Can't be done.

But I don't care that it can't be done!

Personally, I think "magic happens here" is a necessary part of fiction. It's neither reasonable nor practical to write books about things that can only happen "in real life." So, personally, I'm inviting you to take the win.

Music boxes... who knew?!


The basic idea behind photography is not hard, anyone can build a basic Pinhole Camera in a couple of minutes.enter image description here

The biggest challenge is to make a photosensitive substrate, otherwise known as Photoresist. Some substance which, when exposed to light, changes its chemical properties. For instance, becoming black.

There are many options for a substrate, most of which are not great. Most have two issues. Number one, they are sensitive to light so working with them is a bit difficult. Second, they tend to be almost impossible to work with after the exposure. The whole Fixing process (taking developed film and chemically processing it such that upon further light exposure it wont react anymore) is a very complex process. The first "film" cameras used stuff like Mercury Vapor to do that.

So i think you wont get very far with traditional methods of drawing with light. Its not like they are too complex for people to figure out, but where in the name of everything holy will they get Mercury vapor from ?

I think the Autochrome process is more suitable for your application. The source of earliest color photos !

enter image description here

This photo, my guy, was made in 1913. There is an exhaustive guide on how to make these photos. Its not a complex process, just tedious. Even then, it requires a fairly good understanding of chemistry. You need stuff like Sulfuric Acid, Sodium Sulfite, Potassium Dichromate and more.

The Autochrome process does get a lot simpler when you ditch the whole "color" angle and go for a Black and White plate.

One issue, no matter what process you envision, remains. The Lens. Pinhole Cameras are remarkably bad at capturing light as in order to render a sharp image, the Pinhole needs to be very small. This is mitigated in modern Cameras using lenses. And those are difficult to make. But if your guys can make the chemicals needed for any photosensitive process they can make a couple of nice pieces of glass.

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Um, phonograph, they're blind and see by echolocation. $\endgroup$ Feb 18 at 18:14
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ I really hope someone asks a "bronze age photography" question soon, this answer deserves to be preserved $\endgroup$
    – No Name
    Feb 18 at 18:50

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .