How technology evolves: the violin

We often think of technology as engineered or designed as a fully conceived package. But in reality, technology often evolves in incremental steps. Think of the steam engine which was the product of successive tinkering. Or the iPad that grew out of the iPhone that came from the iPod. The Economist recently published another example: violins. Specifically the size and shape of the resonance hole in the violin. As the story points out, the current configuration is not the result of deliberate scientific based engineering but trial and error:

Design implies intent. But [Professor Nicholas Makris] his analysis of 470 Cremonese instruments made between 1560 and 1750 suggests, as the chart shows, that change was gradual–and consistent, in Dr Makris’s view, with random variations in craftsmen’s techniques producing instruments of different power. The market, presumably, favoured those journeymen within a workshop who made more powerful instruments. When they became masters in their turn, they then passed their ways of doing things on to their own apprentices. Only at the very end of the period might a deliberate change have been made, as the holes get suddenly longer.
Intriguingly, intentional attempts in the 19th century to fiddle further with the f-holes’ designs actually served to make things worse, and did not endure. As is also the case with living organisms, mutation and selection seem to have arrived at an optimal result.

FYI – the technical paper (“The evolution of air resonance power efficiency in the violin and its ancestors“) was published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of London.
Also interesting is the fact that the famed Stradivarius is well below others (such as the Guarneri) in sonic power. Clearly some other factors are involved that this particular evolution did not cover.


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