MIT Institute Archives & Special Collections

Charles Wheatstone's "Harmonic Diagram," 1824

Harmonic Diagram

Find out how the diagram works

Detail of construction

Music, science, and mathematics are such natural companions that it is not surprising to find music being taught, composed, and performed at MIT.  With an accomplished faculty and an outstanding music library, the Institute is committed to a belief in the place of music and the other humanities in the education of scientists and engineers.

Shown here is an image of “The Harmonic Diagram,” which was designed in the 19th century by Charles Wheatstone (1802-1875) to serve as a mechanical computer for explaining harmonic theory to a general public eager to learn more about music. It corresponds to the pedagogical device used now for teaching music theory known as the circle of fifths. The Harmonic Diagram has sometimes been classified as a scientific object and has sometimes been considered a musical education tool.  MIT’s copy belonged to the Department of Physics before becoming part of the Legacy Collection of Rare Books at the Institute Archives and Special Collections. 

Charles Wheatstone was born into a family of musical instrument makers.  He was apprenticed at age 16 to his uncle, William Wheatstone, who ran a music business in London, England. He made many acquaintances in the musical world while still young, and he and his brother William took over the business when their uncle died in 1823. Charles studied the acoustical properties of musical instruments and also conducted experiments in optics, electricity, and telegraphy, while continuing to manage the family business. Although he is most widely remembered as the inventor of the concertina, his papers on various scientific subjects became well known in England and abroad and were well respected despite his lack of formal training.  In 1834 he became the first Professor of Experimental Physics at King’s College, London.

Wheatstone was always interested in whatever scientific lessons could be derived from everyday things and in the practical uses to which scientific discoveries could be put. His research about the transmission of sound was related to his interest in how well the musical instruments made by his firm functioned (for example, what happened when the sound created by vibrating strings was transformed by a sound board). In the 1820s he began a long relationship with the Royal Institution, which held regular meetings to encourage cooperation and cross-fertilization between scientists and the musical community.

Other works by Wheatstone in the MIT collections are The Scientific Papers of Sir Charles Wheatstone (1879), compiled and published by the Physical Society of London (in the Off-campus Collection at the Library Storage Annex), and An Account of Some Experiments to Measure the Velocity of Electricity and the Duration of Electric Light (in the Vail Collection in the Archives).

Rare books, manuscripts, theses, and additional materials of historical interest related to music, physics, and a wide variety of other topics are available for use in the MIT Institute Archives and Special Collections, 14N-118.

Object of the Month: January 2007

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