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The Brazen Bull: The dark beginnings of sound technology

Bull Silhouette: istockphoto 000009218746

Science and technology can achieve wonderful things, but they can also have a dark side. This article looks at one of the earliest methods of using technology to do audio processing, changing one sound into another, but be warned it's not a story for the squeamish.

We are used today to electronic audio processing systems like autotune, able to take the off key notes from a singer and turn them into pitched perfection. Electronically this is done by taking the sound wave, breaking it into its various parts and reassembling them in the desired way. In the ancient past more mechanical methods were used. As sound passes through different shaped pipes and chambers it bounces off the surfaces changing the quality of the notes, like a megaphone made by rolling cardboard into a cone can change the properties of your voice. The ancient Greeks had skills in such sound changing systems and in one famous case they were put to horrific use.

In Sicily around 550BC the tyrant Phalaris ruled the citadel of Acragas. Though he brought water to the city, built many fine buildings and improved the fortifications, the story goes that as time passed he became more and more power crazed, and started to think of creative ways to punish those who transgressed against him. He wanted a way to make an example of criminals by creating the most horrific form of death possible. The metal worker Perillos of Athens had the perfect answer: the Brazen Bull. Bulls were creatures the Greeks associated with the gods as in the Minotaur myth, so Perillos created a full sized, but hollow, bull statue built entirely of bronze, with a door in the side. This was to be the instrument of torture, quite literally.

To operate the Bull a criminal was locked inside, and a fire was lit underneath. As the metal heated the poor individual inside was roasted alive, in agonizing pain. But in the head of the bull was the most fiendish part, a clever system of metal pipes and chambers which took the horrific screams of the criminal and converted them in to the mellow sounds of a bellowing bull. As the inventor claimed "[His screams] will come to you through the pipes as the tenderest, most pathetic, most melodious of bellowings." A person's death would be transformed into giving the statue life. Ironically the first person to suffer, demonstrating the full audio processing properties of the Bull was its inventor Perillos, who Phalaris had forcibly locked inside. The acoustic properties soundly demonstrated, the poor metal worker was removed before he was entirely dead, which was good... and then thrown to his death off a nearby cliff, which wasn't. Those ancient Greek tyrants had such a lively sense of humor.

The Brazen Bull was used as entertainment at feasts. When the fire burned the Bull 'came to life' snoring and bellowing, entertaining the guests as the heat cooked the poor individual inside. The smell of roasting human meat mingled with the other barbecue smells, adding to the grotesque foody experience of it all. It's not known how many criminals met their fiery fate in the Bull, though there were reports that after the party, when the fire was out and the bull was opened, their shining bleached bones were removed and used for bracelets: kind of an early form of recycling.

However in true poetic justice, the tyrant Phalaris got the last bellow. When he was deposed he died in his own Bull. The fiendish device was then destroyed, thrown off a cliff into the sea literally to meet its maker. Thus ended the song of the Brazen Bull.