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Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The Original Telephone: The Bizarre Musical Language of Jean-François Sudre

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Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

There’s a famous dispute over who invented the telephone. According to some, it was Alexander Graham Bell. According to others, Elisha Grey got there first. Then there’s the German inventor Philipp Reis and his “Reis telephone,” which was based on an earlier idea by the French scientist Charles Bourseul. And no discussion of 19th century inventors would be complete without Thomas Edison, who patented his “carbon microphone” in 1877, which led to a patent fight that reached the Supreme Court.

But before all of them was the little-known French musician and inventor Jean-François Sudre. His invention may have little (if anything) in common with a modern electronic telephone, but Sudre is nevertheless credited with coining the word telephone and attaching it to a remarkable system he devised for transmitting messages in the early 1800s.

Sudre was a violinist, composer, and music teacher who had been educated at the prestigious Conservatoire de Paris. It was his musical background that in 1827 led Sudre to devise a system of communication in which different combinations of the seven different notes of the musical scale—doh, re, mi, fa, sol, la, and ti—were assigned to all the words in the language. Playing these different combinations of notes could ultimately be used to send musically coded messages on practically any musical instrument. 

In Sudre’s system, on their own the seven notes of the scale represented seven basic, high-frequency words: no (doh), and (re), or (mi), at or to (fa), if (sol), the (la) and yes (ti). Forty-nine possible two-note combinations were used for pronouns, prepositions, and other high-frequency words, like I (doh-re), good (mi-sol), what (fa-doh), and thank you (sol-ti). And 336 three-note combinations were reserved for days (Monday = sol-sol-doh), months (August = re-re-mi), seasons (winter = doh-doh-fa), units of time (year = doh-re-la), and dozens more commonly used words like water (doh-sol-ti) and bread (doh-sol-mi).

As the combinations of notes lengthened, Sudre divided the language into broad thematic categories designated by their first note, or “key.” So all the words in “the Key of Doh” were concerned with “physical and moral aspects of men” (eye = doh-re-mi-re, superstition = doh-mi-ti-ti), while the Key of Re was reserved for “family, household, and dress” (umbrella = re-doh-sol-ti, rent = re-mi-fa-ti). Nouns were pluralized by lengthening their final syllable, while the feminine equivalents of masculine words were produced by accenting or stressing the final syllable—so the combination ti-sol meant sir or Mr, while ti-SOL was madame or Mrs.

Sudre called his system Solrésol, his musical translation of the word “language.” He spent years championing it and publicizing it at demonstrations all over Europe, in which he would ask for random words and phrases from the audience, play them on stage on his violin, and then, to the audience’s amazement, have his assistant—who was positioned outside of normal speaking range—come to the stage and accurately relay the messages word for word. 

As neat an idea as Solrésol was, however, it had two principal drawbacks. Firstly, the person receiving your coded message would have to have perfect pitch in order to correctly interpret the notes you’re playing—and even then the margin for error was terrifically small. Mishear the first note of Sudre’s word for asthma (fa-la-la-sol) as one note higher than it actually is, for instance, and you’ll translate it as excrement (sol-la-la-sol). Hear the “res” in his word for buttons (sol-re-re-do) as “mis,” and it’ll become the Solrésol word for scab (sol-mi-mi-do). Not only that, but the distance over which you can transmit your message in Solrésol is obviously limited by how loud the instrument you’re playing it on is. Sudre’s backstage assistant might be able to hear, but how could you communicate a message from, say, one town to another, or between two ships at sea? 

To get around these issues, Sudre spent years compiling an entire dictionary of Solrésol [PDF] published three years after his death, in 1865, and eventually elaborated his system so that words could be communicated not just using the seven different notes of a scale, but the seven different colors of the rainbow. But in order to solve the issue of transmitting messages over distances, Sudre conceived of an enormous musical instrument, capable of playing the different notes and different musical nuances required to communicate Solrésol messages, which he called the téléphone—a combination of the Greek words for far and sound.

Although both Sudre’s “telephonic system” of musically encoding messages and his enormous musical foghorns failed to catch on, he can at least be credited with the invention of the word telephone—two decades before Alexander Graham Bell was even born. 

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This Just In
A Connecticut Farm Purchased by Mark Twain for His Daughter, Jean Clemens, Is Up for Sale
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Mark Twain—whose wit was matched only by his wanderlust—had many homes throughout his life: a small frame house in Hannibal, Missouri; a Victorian mansion in Hartford, Connecticut; and "Stormfield," a country estate in Redding, Connecticut, just to name a few. Now, the Connecticut Post reports that a farm adjacent to Stormfield, purchased in 1909 by Twain for his daughter, Jean Clemens, is up for sale.

“Jean’s Farm,” as Twain nicknamed the home, is priced at $1,850,000. In addition to a storied literary legacy, the refurbished five-bedroom estate has a saltwater swimming pool, a movie theater, and a children’s play area. It sits on nearly 19 acres of land, making the property “well-sized for a gentleman's farm, for horses, or as a hobby farm,” according to its real estate listing. There’s also a fish pond and a 19th-century barn with an extra apartment.

While scenic, Jean’s Farm has a bittersweet backstory: Jean Clemens, who had epilepsy, enjoyed the pastoral property for only a short time before passing away at the age of 29. She lived in a sanitarium before moving to Stormfield in April 1909, where she served as her father's secretary and housekeeper and made daily trips to her farm. On December 24, 1909, Jean died at Stormfield after suffering a seizure in a bathtub. Twain, himself, would die several months later, on April 21, 1910, at the age of 74.

Twain sold Jean’s Farm after his daughter’s death, and used the proceeds to fund a library in Redding, today called the Mark Twain Library. But despite losing a child, Twain’s years at Stormfield—his very last home—weren’t entirely colored by tragedy. “Although Twain only spent two years here [from 1908 to 1910], it was an important time in the writer’s life,” historian Brent Colely told The Wall Street Journal. “Twain was always having guests over, including his close friend Helen Keller, hosting almost 181 people for visits in the first six months alone, according to guestbooks and notations.”

Check out some photos of Jean’s Farm below, courtesy of

Jean’s Farm, a property in Redding, Connecticut that author Mark Twain purchased for his daughter, Jean Clemens, in 1909.

 Jean’s Farm, a property in Redding, Connecticut that author Mark Twain purchased for his daughter, Jean Clemens, in 1909.

Jean’s Farm, a property in Redding, Connecticut that author Mark Twain purchased for his daughter, Jean Clemens, in 1909.

Jean’s Farm, a property in Redding, Connecticut that author Mark Twain purchased for his daughter, Jean Clemens, in 1909.

[h/t Connecticut Post]

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The Dangerous History Behind the Word 'Deadline'
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Nowadays, the word deadline is used all but exclusively to refer to a date or time by which something must be accomplished. But over the centuries, the term has been used in a number of different contexts: Among early 20th-century printers, for instance, a deadline was a line marked on a cylindrical press outside of which text would be illegible, while the Oxford English Dictionary has unearthed a reference to an angler’s “dead-line” dating from the mid-1800s referring to a weighted fishing line that does not move in the water.

The modern sense of deadline, however, may be influenced by a much more dangerous meaning. It originated during the Civil War, and came to prominence during the much-hyped trial of an infamous Swiss-born Confederate leader named Henry Wirz.

Wirz was born Heinrich Hartmann Wirz in Zürich in 1823. In his early twenties, a court forced him to leave Zürich for 12 years after he failed to repay borrowed money, and in 1848 he left first for Russia before eventually settling in America. After working a string of jobs at several spots around the country, Wirz married a woman named Elizabeth Wolf in 1854 and moved to Louisiana. After the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, he enlisted as a private in the Fourth Louisiana Infantry.

One of Wirz’s first engagements in the war was the Battle of Seven Pines on May 31, 1862. He was badly wounded in the fighting, losing the use of his right arm, and when he returned to his unit a few weeks later he was promoted to the rank of captain in recognition of his bravery and service. From there, Wirz rose through the ranks to become an adjutant to John H. Winder, an experienced and high-ranking general overseeing the treatment of Confederate deserters and Union prisoners. In 1864, Wirz was put in control of Camp Sumter, a newly-established internment camp for Union soldiers located near Andersonville in rural Georgia.

Over the remaining 14 months of the war, Camp Sumter grew to become one of the largest prisoner of war camps in the entire Confederacy. At its peak, it held more than 30,000 Union prisoners, all of whom shared an enormous 16.5-acre open-air paddock—conditions inside of which were notoriously grim. Disease and malnutrition were rife, and a lack of clean water, warm clothing, and adequate sanitation led to the deaths of many of the camp’s prisoners. Of the 45,000 Union prisoners held in the Camp at one time or another, it is estimated that almost a third succumbed to Sumter’s squalid and inhumane conditions.

In his defense, Wirz later claimed to have had little real control over the conditions in the camp, and it is certainly true that the day-to-day running of Camp Sumter was a disorganized affair divided among numerous different parties. Incompetence, rather than malice, may have been the cause of many of the camp's horrors.

Execution of Captain Henry Wirtz (i.e. Wirz), C.S.A, adjusting the rope
Execution of Captain Henry Wirz in 1865

In 1865, the war came to an end and Wirz was arrested in Andersonville. He was eventually sent to Washington, and held in the Old Capitol Prison to await trial before a military commission. That fall, more than 150 witnesses—including one of Wirz’s own prison staff and several former prisoners—took to the stand and gave testimony. Many provided damning evidence of Wirz’s harsh treatment of the prisoners (although historians now think some of these testimonies were exaggerated). As accounts of him withholding food and other supplies from prisoners found to have committed even minor offenses were relayed in the press—and as the full extent of the terrible conditions inside Camp Sumter became public—Wirz emerged as a much-vilified symbol of the camp’s inhumane treatment of its Union prisoners.

One of most damning examples of his inhumanity was his implementation of what became known as the Camp’s dead line:

Wirz, still wickedly pursuing his evil purpose, did establish and cause to be designated within the prison enclosure … a “dead line,” being a line around the inner face of the stockade or wall enclosing said prison, and about twenty feet distant and within said stockade; and so established said dead line, which was in many places an imaginary line, in many other places marked by insecure and shifting strips of [boards nailed] upon the tops of small and insecure stakes or posts, he … instructed the prison guard stationed around the top of said stockade to fire upon and kill any of the prisoners aforesaid who might touch, fall upon, pass over or under or across the said “dead line” ...

—Report of the Secretary of War, October 1865

In other words, this deadliest of all deadlines was a line Wirz implemented just inside the inner wall of Camp Sumter. Any prisoner wandering beyond the line would immediately be killed.

Stories like this were all the evidence the court needed: Wirz was found guilty of violating the rights of wartime prisoners, and was hanged on the morning of November 10, 1865.

Widespread press reports of Wirz’s trial and the horrors of Camp Sumter soon led to the word deadline being popularized, and eventually it passed into everyday use—thankfully in a less severe sense.

By the early 20th century, the word’s military connotations had all but disappeared and the familiar meaning of the deadlines we meet—or miss—today emerged by the early 1920s.


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