Go back to article: Something in the Air: Dr Carter Moffat’s Ammoniaphone and the Victorian Science of Singing

Talisman or training?

The overt commercialisation of Carter Moffat’s Ammoniaphone situated his invention within the broad host of supposedly wonderful elixirs, newly patented pills, and electrical appliances that occupied the expanding and commercially competitive market of medical commodities in the latter decades of the century, designed to soothe the sufferings of the modern populace. Although people had clearly long been nervous and suffered from various forms of exhaustion, the notion of ‘being modern’ was, in this period, increasingly linked to the nervous system and to the excessive levels of strain and stimulation that the nerves were supposedly being subjected to by industrial modernity. In his brief article entitled ‘Neurasthenia, or Nervous Exhaustion’, published in the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal in 1869, the New York physician and early neurologist George Miller Beard insisted upon the status of neurasthenia, or nervous collapse, not simply as a general condition of modern life, but as a distinct and new disease with characteristic symptoms that was induced by that life. Other medical works, such as Benjamin Ward Richardson’s Diseases of Modern Life (1876) lent further authority to such perception, outlining new and diverse diseases produced by the conditions of modernity. Bolstered by prevailing medical orthodoxies, a host of individuals and companies eagerly capitalised on this cult of nervous valetudinarianism. Popular tonics, often containing powerful narcotics and stimulants, were patented, marketed, and experimented with as a means of countering nervous exhaustion. The discovery of the major alkaloids in the early decades of the nineteenth century had introduced a new class of therapeutic agents – including morphine, quinine, strychnine, and opium – to the field of experimental pharmacology, and this expanded throughout the century to include chloral hydrate, the bromides, and barbiturates. Bolstered by prevailing medical orthodoxies which emphasised the value of strengthening the nervous system and restoring firmness and vigour to collapsed nerves, popular tonics, often containing powerful narcotics and stimulants, were patented and publicly embraced as a means of countering exhaustion, ‘sold behind every counter’, as T Clifford Allbutt observed in 1895, as tonics for the diverse conditions of nervous debility that he insisted were replacing complaints of the liver as the new fashionable diseases of the day. It was a popular medical and cultural maxim, Allbutt lamented, that nervous maladies and the modern experience, ‘the fretfulness, the melancholy, the unrest due to living at high pressure’, were becoming ‘inextricably intertwined’, and all the large cities were filling relentlessly with neurotics, neurasthenics, and hysterics, accompanied by ‘nerve-specialists, baths, electric-machines, and massages multiplying daily for their use’ (Allbutt, 1895, p 217).[4]

Like those products that had captured the cultural imagination by promising to effect some sort of internal alteration and physical improvement to the body, Moffat’s Ammoniaphone would supposedly transform the human voice by chemical means. It targeted the ambitious singer, the nervous orator, and the overworked public speaker, and it offered them a material, critical advantage within highly competitive and physically demanding professions. After only a few deep breaths, Moffat promised, ‘Singing becomes warbling, so easy is it, public speaking becomes simplicity itself, and nervousness or stage fright disappear’ (Moffat, 1885, p 23). One would deliver a faultless performance in spite of a highly-strung artistic temperament. It was these kinds of promises, the editors of the Magazine of Music shrewdly observed that ‘called in the imagination of the user of the Ammoniaphone to aid its physiological effect’ and exerted a potent influence upon a nervous temperament (1885a, p 34). In other words, the perceived medical benefits of the Ammoniaphone may produce a placebo effect by inculcating a sense of confidence in the singer that, without any tangible physiological alterations, could nonetheless improve his or her performance.[5]

These kinds of placebos were, it seems, extremely popular amongst the musical profession. In his study of The Hygiene of the Vocal Organs: A Practical Handbook for Singers and Speakers (1886), the eminent physician and laryngologist Sir Morrell Mackenzie observed that alongside the use of tonics, stimulants, or sedatives as a means of ensuring a triumphant performance from an artist who might otherwise have broken down from mere nervousness, ‘all singers and many speakers have their pet nostrum’ (Mackenzie, 1886, p 114). These latter substances, credited by individual singers with extraordinary qualities in clearing, strengthening, enriching, or in some way improving their voice were, according to Mackenzie, generally little more than fads. However, they had a virtue of their own which he insisted it was prudent for the practical adviser to recognise:

Great is the power of the imagination, and if a man fancies that a thing does him good, it is no doubt often really beneficial to him; so in medicine the wisest counsellors are they who adapt their measures to things are they are, not as they perhaps ought to be. […] If a man is deprived of an aid which he believes to be necessary, he is likely enough to fail, owing to that very cause. I many remind my readers of Scott’s early observation of the magical influence of a waistcoat-button upon a schoolfellow’s memory. The utility of many things which vocalists deem necessary for the well-being of their throats is of much the same kind as that button […] Therefore as long as I do not know a thing to be actually injurious, directly or indirectly, I recommend vocalists to take whatever they suppose to be helpful to them. (Mackenzie, 1886, pp 114–115)

Mackenzie then proceeds in his essay to identify various substances commonly used by celebrated vocalists for the benefit of their voices, ranging from champagne and claret to coffee, lemonade, apple, pears, leeks, cold beef, sardines, and raw eggs. In instances of dryness or prickling sensations in the throat, he recommends the singer take cocaine in the form of soft lozenges for immediate relief. He takes violent exception, however, to the use of both cayenne lozenges and Carter Moffat’s Ammoniaphone, as he deems them violent irritants. The Ammoniaphone, despite its being suddenly presented to the world ‘as a talisman only comparable to the magic rings and lamps of Oriental fiction’, is, Mackenzie declares, like so many nostrums for vocalists, an irrational medication (Mackenzie, 1886, p 118). Having conducted several of his own tests with the Ammoniaphone on several individuals, he has determined that, divested of its hyperbolic promises and its powerful effects on the imagination, it is ‘simply a form of “dry inhaler” charged with a volatile preparation of doubtful utility’ that is potentially damaging to the voice (Mackenzie, 1886, p 120).

Figure 4

Colour photograph of an ammoniaphone. A 19 century instrument designed to help singers and public speakers improve the quality of their voice

Metal ammoniaphone - a nineteenth century instrument designed to help singers and public speakers improve the quality of their voice - in original box, invented by Dr Carter Moffat, by Medical Battery Co, London, late nineteenth century

Lennox Browne, a surgeon who served as assistant to Morrell Mackenzie at the hospital for diseases of the throat in Golden Square before founding the central London Ear, Nose, and Throat hospital in 1874, was even more outspoken in declaring the Ammoniaphone to likely be of very great and lasting injury to the voice and throat. In his 1884 lecture to the Society for the Encouragement of the Fine Arts, which was later published in essay form, Browne declared that it was his duty as a scientist to consider the claims made by Moffat carefully and rigorously because they had been advocated ‘as if from a scientific viewpoint, and by some who at first sight appear to have scientific pretensions’ (Browne, 1884, p 21). During his lecture, Browne undertook a series of experiments on a vial of Moffat’s solution, which had been supplied by Moffat himself. These tests, which he said had been confirmed by two eminent chemists, demonstrated that the mixture contained a large amount of free caustic ammonia, a proportion of peppermint, and a proportion of treacle or some other saccharine medium. Advertising material for the Ammoniaphone had cited recent work undertaken by ‘one of the greatest hygienic authorities of the century’, Sir Benjamin Ward Richardson, on the potential therapeutic value of peroxide of hydrogen in practical medicine in order to demonstrate the medical validity of Moffat’s invention (Moffat, 1885, p 25). Peroxide of hydrogen was still a relatively new substance, having been first produced by Louis Jacque Thénard in 1818. Richardson had reported on his own researches in this field in October 1860, offering very tentative conclusions that as an antidote to the alkaloidal poisons, as an external application to decomposing sores, and an internal remedy in fever, as well as in diabetes, peroxide of hydrogen might be carefully administered with some promise of success. He later elaborated on its efficacy as a medicine which promotes glandular secretion in the Medical Times and Gazette in 1868.[6] Despite these new medical applications of the substance and however much peroxide of hydrogen the inventor may have originally put into his preparation, Browne declared, his own experiments demonstrated that it had all very quickly disappeared. This, Browne posited, may be a consequence of its combination with the ammonia or with the organic saccharine medium in which it was suspended, for ‘either or both are sufficient to quickly destroy its existence’ (Browne, 1884, p 25). It is, in fact, a very unstable gas, especially in the presence of an alkali like ammonia. Richardson himself had also commented on the difficulties involved in the manufacture of peroxide of hydrogen, and cited it as ‘a curious fact’ that ammonia in vapour or solution possessed a ‘neutralizing property’ when brought into contact with this gas (Richardson, 1860, p 390). Despite its being advertised as sufficient without renewal for a year’s use, any watery solution like Moffat’s containing peroxide of hydrogen could not, Browne insisted, give off any appreciable amount of that vapour even at the end of a single day. Setting aside any health benefits that peroxide of hydrogen may or may not produce as now irrelevant to the question of the efficacy of Moffat’s Ammoniaphone, Browne moved on the effects of the caustic ammonia. This element, largely the product of putrefaction and decay, was declared to be a ‘highly irritant and poisonous gas, extinguishing flame, and therefore analogously destructive to life’ (Browne, 1884, p 25). Nonetheless, having determined to give the Ammoniaphone a fair trial, Browne’s colleague Mr Behnke experimented with using the Ammoniaphone on his students according to Moffat’s own directions but in a few days had to discontinue the experiment because it produced a frightening degree of relaxation of the throat. Like Mackenzie, Browne ultimately declared the Ammoniaphone to be an injurious device akin to the use of cayenne pepper lozenges and all other irritants that acted as temporary stimulants to the resonator of the voice. ‘Since all stimulation implies reaction,’ he concluded, ‘artificial bracing such as I have indicated must carry its punishment of reactionary relaxation’ (Browne, 1884, p 26).

Figure 5

Colour photograph of close up detail of the Ammoniaphone instrument

Metal ammoniaphone - a nineteenth century instrument designed to help singers and public speakers improve the quality of their voice - in original box, invented by Dr Carter Moffat, by Medical Battery Co, London, late nineteenth century

Figure 6

Colour photograph of close up detail of the Ammoniaphone instrument

Metal ammoniaphone - a nineteenth century instrument designed to help singers and public speakers improve the quality of their voice - in original box, invented by Dr Carter Moffat, by Medical Battery Co, London, late nineteenth century

This reactionary relaxation of the throat may account also for the effects of the Ammoniaphone on the young child of an exhausted parent writing in the penny weekly magazine Fun, who declared that the Ammoniaphone was a ‘wonderful invention’:

We tried its effects on our own one-year-old daughter last night. But though the Ammoniaphone sweetened the infant’s screech, we fervently wished the doctor’s invention had been an infant-killing machine. Unfortunately, we gave vent to this desire in words. (1885c, p 262)

Although Fun, which had been founded by the actor H J Byron in competition with Punch magazine, revelled in parody and satire, this rather dark piece referencing dreams of infanticide points to the very real dangers in employing an Ammoniaphone to moderate or cultivate the voice. The fervent wish that it had been an infant-killing machine becomes somewhat ironic in light of Lennox Browne’s analysis. Given that the contents of this long silver tube were primarily caustic free ammonia, it is not surprising that this gas would alter or even silence the screams of a young child by inducing relaxation of the throat and that it may even prove fatal. Such punishing treatment would have lasting, potentially disastrous effects on young and old users alike.

Ultimately, and rather predictably, Mackenzie and Browne (as well as many musical and medical magazines) agreed that the superiority of Italian singing was the result not of the air, nor the general climate, nor the evolution of the human race, but an unquestionable pre-eminence in vocal training, known as the ‘old Italian school’ bel canto tradition enjoyed by Italian singers. Emerging in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and reaching its zenith in the Romantic era operas of Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini, this singing technique was characterised by pure legato sounds, agility of voice, and fluid vocal embellishments. In this school, the voice was developed gradually over a long period of training, with extensive exercises in proper breathing, diction, the opening of vocal cavities, the projection of tone, and the correct execution of vocal ornaments. Pupils listened to their voice masters’ proper execution of vocalisations and attempted to emulate them, while teachers informed their students when they had attained the desired result and insisted that they memorise and remain alert to the physical and emotional sensations that accompanied the correct technique.[7] In contrast, the modern singing methods frequently employed in English vocal training, drawn from scientific research greatly aided by the Spanish vocalist Manuel Garcia’s invention of the laryngoscope, sought to train the voice more rapidly through a physiologically informed education and complex technical instruction. The strengths and weaknesses of each method were hotly debated in the medical and musical press throughout the nineteenth century – and in fact continue to be analysed in vocal pedagogy today (Miller, 1997). Many writers admitted that the old Italian school was aided by the fact that Italian was a far more melodic language than English, French, or German, as the majority of Italian words terminate in a pure vowel and the sibilants are very soft. Non-Italian vocalists were frequently urged to study Italian as the language of song. In his study, Modern Singing Methods: Their Use and Abuse (1885), the American vocalist John Franklin Botume advocated for an amalgamation of these two methods, insisting that one of the greatest strengths of the Italian school was its regiment of developing the voice over a long period of time:

The teacher of the future will […] follow the old process. He will attempt little the first or the second year, and will go gradually, carefully, regularly and, above all, slowly to the end. […] Nature is a hard task-mistress. When you steal from her today, she will exact with compound interest tomorrow. The end of these ‘short-cuts’ is, that every quick result which the pupil gains is attended either with some physical weakness or disease, or else with an accompanying fault; such as a tremolo, a tendency to sing ‘off the key’, a nasal, sharp, foggy, hard or weak tone, a lack of flexibility, a premature decay of the voice, or some other disagreeable thing (Botume, 1885, pp 81–82).

There were, medics and vocal pedagogues agreed, no artificial substitutes or quick fixes for dedicated study and extensive vocal training. Further, as the Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News rather derisively declared in its piece on ‘Nostrums for Vocalists’, the Ammoniaphone belonged only to those ‘feeble folk, who think that a royal road to success may be discovered with the aid of money’ (1885b, p 7). Musical talent was not a simple commodity to be bottled and sold. W Mattieu Williams similarly insisted that within the Italian musical profession, ‘years of steady daily drudgery are devoted to such preparation, with corresponding results’. The Ammoniaphone, he implied, was a product of and for those feeble folk, English artistes who are ‘usually very lazy, and depend upon the natural excellence of their voices rather than upon the daily drill which really has the effect attributed by Dr Moffat to peroxide of hydrogen’ (Williams, 1884, p 406). The only tangible and lasting benefit that may have been derived from purchasing an Ammoniaphone, then, was the inclusion of Moffat’s directions for exercising the voice after inhaling from the instrument, which critics noted would have been valuable even without his wonderful new device.

In the latter decades of the nineteenth century, it was difficult to open a newspaper without being bombarded by a range of advertisements for various nerve remedies and quack medicines, purporting to cure all manner of ills induced by the wear and tear of modern life. In an article written for the literary and political periodical Arena in 1894, the American artist and philosopher Elbert Hubbard identified ‘A New Disease’ that he believed was emerging as a penalty of the progress of modern civilisation. The ‘latest thing in neurotics is paranoia’, Hubbert declared, and it was a condition that he insisted was being deliberately fostered by the endless schemes for self-treatment that were being ‘thrust at us from the columns of every daily’, seen in shop windows in ‘dainty little push boxes containing hypodermic outfits’ and ‘rail announcements of “the only sarsaparilla” and “the kind that cures”’, and ‘pepsin, hypophosphates, bromide, cocaine, chloral are sold on every hand’ (Hubbard, 1894, p 77). Such an overabundance of nerve tonics and remedies, Hubbard added, paradoxically worked on the mind of the observer in order to incite the kind of fear and nervousness that they purported to prevent. Like so many of its counterparts, Carter Moffat’s Ammoniaphone was a quack medical remedy that employed new networks of advertising and the penny post to provoke and to respond to medical and professional anxieties of the age. Exploiting contemporary notions of British singers’ inherent biological, physiological, and even geographical inferiority to their Italian counterparts, the Medical Battery Company’s marketing strategy served to stimulate anxiety within the musical profession while offering a very simple means of relief – for a certain price.

Such unscrupulous tactics and commodified cures for modern ills cannot, however, simply be relegated to the past as mere historical curiosities. Rather, they draw our attention to parallels between the commodity culture of the nineteenth century, and current explorations of the problems and suggested cures of modernity and encourage us to exercise a greater degree of analysis and scepticism. As recently as February 2016, it was revealed that a family business in Dorset has started bottling and selling English countryside air at £80 a bottle to Chinese connoisseurs who, according to the company’s PR savant, will ‘pick up different notes of grass, or near the sea…some saltiness in it as well’ (Robbins, 2016). The video in this Sky News article shows the process of air harvesting. It also shows that if you have a clever marketing strategy, you really need nothing else at all.


The research leading to these results has received funding from the European Research Council under the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme ERC Grant Agreement number 340121, as well as a Higher Education Innovation Fund Award from the University of Oxford, which allowed me to spend two months researching the medical collections of the London Science Museum, including their collection of Ammoniaphones.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/170702/003