In his 1915 Book of Wonders, popular science writer Rudolph Bodmer suggested that the association followed from the symbolic power of shells: “The sounds we hear when we hold a sea shell to the ear are not really the sound of the sea waves. We have come to imagine that they are because they sound like the waves of the sea, and knowledge that the shell originally came from the sea helps us to this conclusion very easily.”2 But the likeness, he urged, had a technical explanation—though one in which similitude still figured. Both sea and seashell sounds were generated by waves: “The sounds we hear in the sea shell are really air waves”—waves, that is, of concentrated, resonant noise from the listener’s surroundings. That explanation sought to supplant superstition with science, trading sublime enchantment for fascinating fact. The account in Bodmer’s book rested on a century of empirical and theoretical investigation in which sound had come to be understood as vibration, and not, as earlier, more numinously, on the model of music or voice, exampling what Jonathan Sterne names as a “shift from models of sound reproduction based on imitations of the mouth to models based on imitations of the ear.”
more from Stefan Helmreich at Cabinet here.