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Thumbnail of William Du Bois Duddell (source)
William Du Bois Duddell
(1 Jul 1872 - 4 Nov 1917)

English electrical engineer who devised what may be regarded as the first electric musical instrument, the Singing Arc (1899).


William Du Bois Duddell

William Duddell. Colorization © todayinsci
William Duddell
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Born in 1872, William Du Bois Duddell received his education in England and France. He began a career in electrical engineering as an apprentice with Messrs. Davey, Paxman and Co., in Colchester. From age 21, he spent several years at the City and Guilds Institute, where he made use of the facilities for his experiments.

Joubert's method of measuring an alternating voltage was to use a potentiometer bridge and balance a series of phases of of a period of the current variations against a standard cell.

For the same purpose, Duddell devised a galvanometer sensitive and responsive enough to display the variations as a curve outlined by a moving light spot. The light trace displayed by this galvanometer could also be photographed. Combining a talent for invention with a delicate skill as a workman, he gained recognition as a designer of specialized scientific instruments.

With Professor Marchant, he investigated the resistance of an electric carbon arc lamp in a circuit by measuring the ratio of the voltage to the current. Such lights had the side effect of producing a noise that could vary from a low hum to an annoying high-pitched whistle. By 1899, Duddell created the Singing Arc as a musical novelty for his lectures. The effect was based on varying the voltage to applied to a carbon arc lamp, resulting in oscillations producing an audible tone controlled from a keyboard.

Danish engineer Valdemar Poulsen modified this principle (1902) with specially designed equipment to generate continuous waves for wireless telegraphy at frequencies above a human's hearing range. This early contribution to radio was adapted in the valve-type transmitter.

Because Duddell had both the knowledge as an electrical engineer and the skill to give clear but simple technical explanations, he was effective as an expert witness in court trials resolving technological disputes.

In 1912, he was elected Fellow of the Royal Society. While still only 40 years old, he became the then youngest President of the Institution of Electrical Engineers and served two one-year terms (1912 and 1913).

He died on 4 November 1917 at the age of only 45, having spent the final three years of his life engaged in secret research for the U.S. government.

From 'Obituary Notices of Fellows Deceased,' Proceedings of the Royal Society of London. Series A, Containing Papers of a Mathematical and Physical Character (1 Aug 1918), 94, No. 664, xxxiv-xxxv.


See also:
  • 1 Jul - short biography, births, deaths and events on date of Duddell's birth.
  • William Duddell - devised first electric musical instrument - Music in Electric Arcs (NYT 1901)
  • Large color picture of William Duddell (800 x 900 px)
  • Today in Science History event description for report of the Singing Arc in the journal Nature on 20 Dec 1900

Nature bears long with those who wrong her. She is patient under abuse. But when abuse has gone too far, when the time of reckoning finally comes, she is equally slow to be appeased and to turn away her wrath. (1882) -- Nathaniel Egleston, who was writing then about deforestation, but speaks equally well about the danger of climate change today.
Carl Sagan Thumbnail Carl Sagan: In science it often happens that scientists say, 'You know that's a really good argument; my position is mistaken,' and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn't happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion. (1987) ...(more by Sagan)

Albert Einstein: I used to wonder how it comes about that the electron is negative. Negative-positive—these are perfectly symmetric in physics. There is no reason whatever to prefer one to the other. Then why is the electron negative? I thought about this for a long time and at last all I could think was “It won the fight!” ...(more by Einstein)

Richard Feynman: It is the facts that matter, not the proofs. Physics can progress without the proofs, but we can't go on without the facts ... if the facts are right, then the proofs are a matter of playing around with the algebra correctly. ...(more by Feynman)
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