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Collection Dayton C. Miller Collection

Dayton C. Miller (1866-1941): American Acoustician, Physicist, Flutist, and Collector of All Things Related to Flutes

The following passage is excerpted from L. Gilliam and W. Lichtenwanger, The Dayton C. Miller Flute Collection: A Checklist of the Instruments (Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 1961), p. v-vi.

Dayton C. Miller with bicycle, about seventeen years old, ca. 1883. Dayton C. Miller, in cycling attire, stands before his bicycle.

No one better exemplifies the traditional concept of the practical-minded, ever-curious American scientist than Dayton C. Miller, who was born on a farm (at Strongsville, Ohio, March 13, 1866), grew up under modest circumstances in the small Ohio town of Berea, and worked his way through Baldwin University (later Baldwin-Wallace College).

It is characteristic that at his commencement exercises in 1886 he gave a lecture on "The Sun" and also played a flute solo with orchestral accompaniment (on a flute that unfortunately was not preserved). Later he obtained a doctorate in astronomy at Princeton University under Professor Charles A. Young, and in 1890 he began an association with the Case School of Applied Science in Cleveland that lasted for over fifty years--first teaching astronomy, later (1893) becoming a professor in charge of the physics department.

X-Ray of Dayton C. Miller, 1896. Photographer: Edith Easton Miller.

In early 1896, on reading accounts of Roentgen's experiments, Professor Miller became one of the first Americans to take an X-ray photograph; beginning in 1900 he associated with Professor Edward W. Morley in those ether drift experiments that still concern astronomers and mathematicians dealing with Einstein's theory of relativity; in 1908 he introduced the phonodeik, a device that until the invention of electronic oscillators was one of the chief means of converting sound waves into visual images and thus of analyzing all manner of sounds from musical instruments to human speech.

During World War I, at the request of the Government, Dr. Miller studied the physical characteristics of pressure waves caused by the firing of large guns--studies that on the one hand provided material for medical investigations of "shell shock," and on the other hand led to the results eventually reported in his Sound Waves, Shape and Speed (1937). Among his other published books one finds The Science of Musical Sounds (New York, 1916, revised 1922), Sparks, Lightning and Cosmic Rays (1939), and (translated and annotated) Theobald Boehm's The Flute and Flute-Playing (1908, revised 1922, reprinted 1960).

Death came to Dr. Miller at Cleveland on February 22, 1941, just as he was preparing to move with his entire collection of flutes, books, and related materials to the Library of Congress, and here complete the varied investigations that remained unfinished and unpublished.

Dr. Miller's interests in acoustics and music-making were chiefly responsible for starting the collection on its way, and are reflected in his collection of flutes and wind instruments. Flute nos. 8 and 10 show Dayton C. Miller as both the theoretical scientist and the expert craftsman; the first is of silver and the second of gold, and this concern with the properties of different materials for musical instruments was a major factor in his development of the phonodeik and in the many acoustical experiments he subsequently carried out using examples in his collection. (When interrupted by his war work of 1917-19 he had started plans for a platinum flute that were never resumed.) It is interesting to note that a great part of the collection, close to 85 percent, was acquired after Dr. Miller had passed his fiftieth birthday.

For a detailed biographical account of Miller, see William J. Maynard's "Dayton C. Miller: His Life, Work, and Contributions as a Scientist and Organologist" (master's thesis, Long Island University, 1971), made available here with permission from the author.
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See also Miller's The Science of Musical Sounds (New York, 1916), incorporating the results of his charting of instrument waveforms, and his Anecdotal History of the Science of Sound (New York, 1935), the first general history of acoustical studies.