Events and People

If Rudolph Koenig Attended the Philadelphia Science Festival & Philly Tech Week

Rudolph Koenig’s full “Philosophical Apparatus” demonstrated
at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition.

The Philadelphia Science Festival and Philly Tech Week 2013 presented by AT&T both return this week, for their coinciding 10-day-long homage to the thriving science and technology communities in Philadelphia. But Philadelphia’s excitement about new, sometimes oddball technology has precedent that reaches at least as far back as Ben Franklin and includes staples of our daily lives like the wired telephone.

So in honor of the more than 200 events taking place through the end of April, we decided to think back on who we might resurrect from the annals of history to attend these events and decided on a pretty unconventional figure; a Parisian, no less: (Karl) Rudolph Koenig (1832-1901).

Koenig, who is no Philadelphian, certainly seems an unlikely candidate. Originally from Koenigsburg, Prussia (now part of Russia), he made his career in Paris inventing musical oddities and theorizing about the science of acoustics. In addition to his acoustical research contributions, Koenig was best known for his finely crafted tuning forks and for creating a manometric flame and rotating mirror which proved that fire would follow the rise and fall of musical sound waves.

The siren “Telephone” component of the Koenig’s exhibit.

Koenig first came to Philadelphia for the international Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition of 1876. There, Rudolph Koenig showed off a strange acoustical item called the “Philosophical Apparatus” (top). Part of the machine, a siren, was dubbed the “Telephone” and is pictured at left.

Another piece of the apparatus was a tonometer made of more than 600 tuning forks. While the object in the picture doesn’t look like anything most of us would call a phone, the jury was reportedly so taken with entirety of his creation, that one judge commented:

There is no other [exhibit] in the present International Exhibition which surpasses it in scientific interest.

Koenig claimed a gold medal at the Exhibition for his work.

Some reports indicate that the University of Pennsylvania might have been interested in purchasing the entire apparatus Koenig exhibited, however most sources note he struggled to sell his work in the United States and returned to Paris after the Centennial a bit put off. He did eventually sell the tonometer  to the United States Military Academy at West Point.

Incidentally, Alexander Graham Bell was also at the international Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition that year, exhibiting his recently patented and ultimately more famous telephone.

With his passion for audio and penchant for invention, it seems like Koenig could make a strong showing at a PTW mobile hackathon, were it not for more than 100 years of technological advances in the way we record and transmit sound. Still, given the plethora of audio-oriented applications that will undoubtedly be demonstrated throughout the course of PTW, it seems likely that Koenig and his accoustic apparati could quickly fit right in.


Torben Rees, ‘Rudolph Koenig: the pursuit of acoustic perfection’, Explore Whipple Collections, Whipple Museum of the History of Science, University of Cambridge, 2009 [, accessed 24 March 2013]