Inventing the Lithophone: Intelligent Design Hits the Rocks
An award-winning film reenacts the unplanned invention of a stone xylophone.
Posted August 30, 2022 | Reviewed by Abigail Fagan
Although we commonly marvel at the countless achievements of human innovation and hail their inventors as creative geniuses, we’re virtually never privy to the actual creative process behind their making. Knowing only that something exists now that hadn’t existed before, we ask: How could that have happened? Here, our imaginations conjure up a variety of intriguing possibilities: insight, foresight, and deliberate design are among the many factors believed to play prime parts in the creative process, especially if the inventors are exceptionally renowned.
Yet, the reality of innovation may greatly eclipse its allure. Consider America’s most prominent inventor, Thomas Edison, who offered this bluntly unpretentious self-appraisal of his many celebrated inventions:
I never had an idea in my life. I’ve got no imagination. I never dream. My so-called inventions already existed in the environment—I took them out. I’ve created nothing. Nobody does. There’s no such thing as an idea being brain-born; everything comes from the outside. The industrious one coaxes it from the environment.
Edison himself was nothing if not industrious, famously proclaiming that: “Genius is 1 percent inspiration, 99 percent perspiration.” As proof of this assertion, it took Edison some 2,774 tries before he finally found the bamboo filament that was to make his version of the incandescent lightbulb a marketable success.
Of course, few inventions are as universally known and fêted as the lightbulb. It’s even become the clichéd and altogether unbefitting meme for the Eureka! or “lightbulb” moment of creative insight. However, another far less impactful invention has recently attracted international attention among film aficionados because of its serving as the showpiece of an award-winning short: the stenofone, a lithic xylophone or lithophone.
The 2021 Danish film Stenofonen is the artistic creation of writer, director, and actor Nicolaj Kopernikus (born Nicolaj Christiansen), who dramatically reenacts his father’s invention of a musical instrument made of small stones. Only in middle age did Kopernikus surprisingly discover that his father (Jørn Christiansen) had created the instrument when he was 12 years old and performed the debut of the stenofone on a live 1949 Danish radio broadcast, Hallo-Hallo.
The circumstances surrounding the invention of the stenofone center on Jørn’s ardent desire to play his violin for friends at seaside camp; however, Jørn’s stern father prohibited him from doing so, believing that the lad lacked the requisite talent. Feeling deeply despondent, Jørn wanders off alone on the beach while all of the other campers frolic in the surf.
Clad only in a tank top and shorts with a length of rope tied around his waist, Jørn gathers several stones which he chances to find along the beach.
Jørn then sits down in the sand dunes and, with one stone balanced across his knees, he taps it with a small black "striking" stone. The sound is surprisingly pure and pleasing. He repeats the process to confirm the result. He then uses his "striking" stone to tap a second stone held against his knee, but it simply clunks. Jørn next uses the "striking" stone to tap each of the other two stones placed in the sand, with similar but more subdued sounds. He tries again with both stones elevated above the sand on a loop of the rope he’s removed from his waist; the results are again similar, but with a bit more lively sound from the first stone. He next tries tapping a third stone on the rope; it too produces a clear and satisfying sound, but with a noticeably different pitch from the first stone.
Following a return to the camp cabin, a change in clothing, and more stone gathering, Jørn continues exploring the sounds produced by each member of his ever-growing supply of stones. At this point, the seven stones he’s aligned on the rope produce a nicely ordered series of tones; but, the highest pitch in the octave is missing. So, he assembles still more stones to test. The full collection—estimated to number around 2,000—ultimately yields the critical eighth note the C-major scale, allowing Jørn to tap out the melody of Clementine on his newly created and self-named stenofone.
Prior to learning about the stenofone, I had proposed a framework to analyze the origins of a variety of different creative behaviors, ideas, and devices in my recent book, As If by Design: How Creative Behaviors Really Evolve. The three main contributing factors to innovations that I highlighted are context, coincidence, and consequence.
In the case of the stenofone, the role of context centers around Jørn’s disconsolate beach walk prompted by his being prohibited from playing the violin for fellow campers. The role of coincidence comprises Jørn’s chancing to find several stones along the beach as well as his happening to use a rope to hold up his shorts. The role of consequence entails the various different tones that sound as Jørn engages in the trial-and-error process of tapping many different stones with his single "striking stone."
So, with the invention of the stenofone, we see the utterly impromptu creation of a novel musical instrument without any hint of premeditated design. Context, coincidence, and consequence have merely permitted the “industrious” Jørn to “coax” the stenofone “from the environment”—just as Edison contended had been the case for his own noteworthy inventions. Each of these two inventors thus appear to have abided by the ancient adage—Leave no stone unturned!—although only Jørn can be deemed to have done so literally.
Of course, Nicolaj Kopernikus could never have witnessed his father’s invention of the stenofone—he hadn’t yet been born. But, he was able to glean not only the essence but many of the details of its invention from conversations with his father as well as from the account that appeared in a magazine article published after Jørn’s Hallo-Hallo performance. Further contributing to the realism of Kopernikus’ cinematic reenactment was that the two tunes Jørn actually played on the radio show—Clementine and a short catchy samba—had been recorded on a cassette tape and were added to the film’s soundtrack. Also, the black "striking" stone and one other from his father’s original set were included in the film.
Finally, the question arises: How did the film Stenofonen come to be? Allow me again to apply my analytical framework. Context: Kopernikus had a somewhat complicated and reserved relationship with his father who, even in his later years, retained his abiding passion for music and especially his deep affection for the works of Ludwig van Beethoven. Coincidence: By chance spotting a stone on his father’s table, Kopernikus asked what kind of stone it was. His father then recounted the origin of the stenofone, which Kopernikus had never heard before. Consequence: Years after his father’s passing, Kopernikus produced the film Stenofonen to honor his father by reenacting the invention of this unique musical instrument—the cinematic art of Kopernikus dramatically imitating a profound moment in the life of his father.
Note: Special thanks go to Nicolaj Kopernikus, who provided me with invaluable information and material for this story. Here is the online video.
Wasserman, E. A. (2021). As if by design: How creative behaviors really evolve. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.