The Sarrington Cosmonophone
Chicago, Illinois (1932): In 1931, Julius Sarrington had an idea: to create a musical device that could transmit supranatural vibrations into the human world. A lapsed Theosophists and failed inventor, Sarrington alleged that the universe was based upon musical principles that ordered and maintained the harmony of the cosmos. His beliefs mixed Pythagorean philosophy with new age spiritualism in equal measure, arguing that our world was constantly surrounded by a “cosmic symphony of meaning and purpose” that we could not detect through our normal senses. Working out of depression-era Chicago, Sarrington sought to build a device capable of gathering and transmitting this cosmic music all around us. At this time, Léon Theremin had recently patented his eponymous musical instrument, which allowed performers to generate musical sounds without ever touching a physical instrument. Following the initial unveiling of the Thereminophone in New York during the late 1920s, Sarrington became convinced of his own theories. The Theremin was a “revelation,” as he put it. It provided proof that music could, indeed, be “pulled from the air.”
While it is clear that Sarrington misunderstood the practical mechanisms behind the Theremin, he set to work on building an instrument that would allow humans to hear the supposed cosmic symphony ordering the universe. In 1931, he constructed a prototype for his “Cosmonophone” with the intention of exhibiting the instrument at the upcoming Chicago World’s Fair. During an inaugural unveiling in 1932, Sarrington invited a select number of journalists to witness his prototype in action. At the gathering, he provided his audience with a brief history of his efforts and then proceeded to switch on the Cosmonophone. Journalists reported that the sounds coming from the keys resembled a gurgling noise like “fish gasping for air.” Others claimed they heard murmuring voices just beneath the bubbling sounds. As one newspaper wrote: “If this is the symphony of the Cosmos, I prefer to stick with Bach and Mozart and leave the cosmos to itself.”
The debut of the Cosmonophone was met with general skepticism and the instrument did not feature in the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair. Sarrington himself died in late 1932, before the exhibition began, ostensibly from “humiliation,” as one source stated.