Urban legends? (listening to Mona Lisa; Pres. Garfield's bedsprings)

Here are two situations that I wonder about. As they seem contrary to common sense, I have to suspect that there’s a good deal less about them than meets the eye. Yet I’ve never actually run across an expose thereof.

(1) In the late 60s-early 70s there was a well-distributed report–not in a science journal, but in something like TIME and maybe in the daily papers–that ran something like this.

“Professor So-and-so was given the task of cleaning Leonardo’s famous Mona Lisa, which is done occasionally. While the painting was down on a table he happened to run a high-fidelity stereo stylus across its surface. He thought he heard something unusual in the resulting static. Running the stylus over the same area at different speeds, he finally heard a male voice saying “Finito!” (“It is done” in Italian.) Could this be the actual voice of Leonardo, somehow captured in the drying paint?? Scientists baffled, etc.”

Now I don’t know if it makes any kind of sense to think that drying paint could replicate the pattern of sound vibrations in the way a record groove does. I’m more intrigued by this question: What kind of professional painting restorer is willing to risk damaging one of history’s most famous paintings by running (of all things!) a stereo needle across it!?!

Was there ever a followup top this? Was it just a joke? (ie, “…and the voice said, ‘MONA, WE GOTTA GETTA YOU TEETH FIXED!’…”) I’m going entirely from memory on this and have probably mangled some details, but I do remember the overall story quite well.

(2) And then I happened to be meditating on the oft-repeated claim that, as Pres. James A. Garfield lay on his deathbed after being shot, a noted inventor (Bell? Edison?) offered to use a special device to help the doctors determine the exact location of the lodged bullet. It was supposedly a big electromagnet on a finely-balanced “arm”. The attempt failed; Garfield died. But NOW it has been determined that the device would have worked perfectly–except it was thrown off by the bedsprings in Garfield’s bed!

So they cart in this big piece of experimental machinery, trying to save the life of POTUS, and it never even OCCURS to anyone that other pieces of metal on or around the body might affect it?? They don’t try it just once to calibrate it? They just say, OK, not working, we’re outta here–and the inventor doesn’t even consider that those squeaking sounds are coming from metal objects right under ol’ JAG’s backside?

Was anything in the story true?

Mona Lisa story, false; Garfield’s wound probed with an electric device, true.

More on President Garfield’s medical treatment.

The theory that the coil springs in the mattress were causing interference with Alexander Graham Bell’s electromagnetic device was known and disproved while Garfield was still alive. See the entry for 1 August 1881 in that timeline.

If you think about it for a few moments, the Mona Lisa story doesn’t even make sense. How in the hell is a painting going to record sound? It isn’t an overly-complex concept (in fact, all of the tools needed to do it theoretically existed at the time*), but it requires a bit of effort to make it work.

*If they could make spring-driven clocks they had the metalworking skills needed to machine instruments precise enough to record and play back sound. All they lacked was enough theory to let them know it was possible.

Why exactly was it assumed that a large electromagnet would be able to find a bullet? What was the bullet thought to be composed of?

Bell’s device was a metal detector. Photograph and schematic diagram here.

What a coincidence! While I was restoring a family heirloom brooch, I happened to place it in my VCR and my great grandfather appeared on the TV screen and yelled, “Whoopee!”

The painting story sounds bogus, but there’re some slightly more plausible legends about the same thing happening with pottery as it’s being spun on the wheel (as recorded in the fine documentary series, the X-files). And while it seems amazingly improbable, consider that phonograph recordings are just the results of a vibrating stylus being drawn across an impressionable material. So, could the vibrations of a voice saying “Finito” be transmitted through the bones to the brush to the pigment? Mebbe. Heck, this guy figured out how to draw holograms by hand… http://www.amasci.com/amateur/holo1.html

I can’t draw a hologram, but I can write a holograph.

Too bad somebody didn’t invent the phonograph a few centuries earlier; we might have a recording of Bach playing the organ. Like the balloon, that’s one of the great inventions that could easily have been created much earlier. (Cyrano de Bergerac even described a hot-air balloon in his fantasy about a voyage to the Moon.)

The way I heard the “Mona Lisa” story (10-20 years ago, not more) was that some theorist got the idea that as the brush was drawn across the canvas, the solidifying paint would have impressed into it the changes in air pressure that occurred as it was drawn across the canvas (i.e., the ambient sound). I think this could work if the paint solidified virtually instantaneously the moment it lost contact with the brush, but wouldn’t work with real paint. The theorist was supposed to be going around scratching paintings with a phonograph needle to see what he could hear.

The most ridiculous partt of the Mona Lisa story is that some schmuck would be able to and stupid enough to drag a freakin’ needle across the world’s most pricelss piece of art.:rolleyes:

I work in a museum. There is utterly no way our curator would ever permit something like this, even on our least-important paintings.

I have serious doubts that the curator in charge of the care of the *Mona Lisa, * arguably the most famous painting in the world, would ever dream of allowing anyone to draw a record needle across the surface of the painting.

Such a thing is pointless, anyway. Leonardo didn’t paint in a straight line, allowing for a continious flow of sound. His strokes were small enough that even if sound information was recorded into them, only a fraction of a second of sound would be “recorded” in their length. The “audio” of such a painting would be incredibly choppy, and, since Leonardo intermittently worked on Mona over some time, it would probably be unintelligible.

I heard a similar tale but it involved a pub in Ireland. It seems the walls were made with a material that contained magnetic clay or rock or some such.

Baldwin: Exactly. If I ever develop a time machine, I’d go back to Europe about the time the first spring-wound clocks were appearing and build a version of Bell’s original phonograph. Even though the wax cylinders were laughably primitive and fragile, they worked well enough to be mass-produced (in a manner of speaking) and shipped to customers. Of course, I’d make sure the important recordings (artists, politicos, geniuses, and interesting people of all kinds) went back downstream with me.

Similarly, the camera could probably have been invented around the time optics was getting off the ground, had anyone been able to hit on the right combination of chemicals for the photographic paper. After all, they knew of the camera obscura well enough to paint an inordinate amount of left-handed Renaissance noblemen and merchants.

Anyway, back to the topic: Could Bell’s electromagnetic device have responded very well to a lead round? I misdoubt lead to be very ferrous, and that’s how I thought those devices worked.

There was some news story not so long ago about a scientist suggesting that leaves could have recorded dinosaur roars in a similar fashion. Something about scratching tree sap onto adjacent bark. It sounded like utter BS to me, but apparently it was a serious proposition.

In theory I suppose it’s just about conceivably possible at an extremely long-shot. But any sound recorded this way would totally be drowned out by the physical relief of the paint strokes themselves.

Anyway, a painting restorer (which is a highly delicate and scientific task) who just “happened to run a high-fidelity stereo stylus” over a painting would find their career to be extremely short and financially ruinous. When you’re dealing with paintings worth millions nothing just ‘happens’.

Archaeoacoustics! Apparently.

Here’s a short interesting piece on the recovery of ancient sounds, and it includes information on the experiment that must have mutated into the story descriped in the OP:

Pretty cool. It even mentions Mona Lisa right at the bottom of the page:

So there you go. This guy’s even rigged up an old walkman so that he can scrape it on things to listen for accidental recordings.

Someone got the Mona Lisa story skewed Here’s the Straight Dope:
There’s an rticle in an oold IEEE journal entitled “Acustical REcordins from Antiquity”. I don’t recall the cite exactly, but Arthur C. Clarke cites it in an essay of his that’s erinted in his collection The View from Serendip. In it, the EE claims to have used a pckup mike to recover acciental recordings from antiquity – cases where something could actually ct like the stylus-and-aluminum-foil medium Tom Edison originally used.
The author claimed to hav been able to recover the sound of a noisy potter’s whel rom the clay sides of some ancient hand-thrown pots. He also said that he as able to recover some sounds from the grooves in the paint on a painting. (This was, I hasten to point out, not the Mona Lisa)

Pretty hard-to-believe stuff, but the editors at th IEEE journal thought t interesting, as did Clarke. Also, the (anonymous) author of he column “Daedalus” in Nature (or is it cience? I can never remember) suggested exactly the same idea in his column of admittedly far-out ideas.

One of these people – I think the author f the original article, but t might ave been Clarke – recalled the story that da Vinci entertained the sitter o Mna Lisa by hving musi played for her (and, t is implied, that’sw why tthe enigmatic smile), and speculated that maybe we could recover some of that music by running an acoustic pickup over the grooves in th paint of La Gioconda. ut that’s as far as it went – a suggestion. Nobody’s ever even seriously suggested actualy doing it, AFAIK.

I dug through my bookcase and found my copy of Serendip. Here’s the cite:

Dr. Richard Woodbridge, “Acoustic Recodings from Antiquity”, Proceedings of the IEEE August 1969, pp. 1465-1466. To quote from Clarke’s essay (p. 185 in the paperbackedition of The View from Serendip):

“Dr. Woodbridge first explored the surface of a clay pot with simple phonograph pickup and succeeded indetecting the sounds produced by a rather noisy potter’s wheel. Then he played loud music to a canvas while it was being painted, and found that short snatches of melody could be identified after th paint had dried. The fina step – achieved only after a ‘long and tedious search’ – was to find a spoken word in an oil painting. To quote from Dr. Woobridg’s letter: ‘The word was ‘blue’ and was located in a blue paint stroke – as if the artist was talking to himelf or t the subject.’”

Clarke goes on:

“This pioneering achevement certainly opens up some fascinating vistas. It is sad that Leonardo employed a small orchestra to alleviate Mna Lisa’s boredom during the prolonged sittings. Well, we ay be able to check this – if the authorities at the Louvre will allow someone to prowl over the canvas with a crystal pickup.”

I have copies of Woodbridges letter and the Daedalus atrticle (which, IIRC, was from circa 1972) around somewhere, bt damned if I’m going to go rooting for them now.
Don’ know anything about Garfield’s bedspings.

From BBC Enterprises you can buy a vid of a play they did in the 70s called The Stone Tape. It’s a ghost story, and not a bad one, which explores a theme related to this thread, viz a structure managing to somehow ‘record’ something of a past event and then ‘playback’ when triggered in a suitable way.

It’s very 70s, so many aspects of it look rather naff from today’s point of view (the special effects aren’t very, and all the references to computers are risible) but I think it’s still pretty good.