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In these days of astounding technological advancement it is reassuring to know that some relatively simple devices have not yet been replaced by something containing a microchip: the tuning fork, for example.
Simply a single piece of metal, usually steel, with two prongs of equal length in the shape of an elongated U and a handle at the base of the U, the tuning fork was invented in 1711 by British musician and composer John Shore. Tap the end of the fork on a firm surface and it resonates at a specific constant pitch, emitting a pure tone.
John Shore (c.1662–1752) was for many years a sergeant trumpeter and lutenist to the royal court. He had parts specifically written for him by both Handel and Purcell. Before the invention of the tuning fork, musical pitch varied between countries and even between bands within the same town. This required musicians in the woodwind section in particular to have more than one instrument if they played in more than one band.
Shore’s new portable standards brought some uniformity to instrument tuning, although a common standard for pitch tuning was not achieved until 1939.
Tuning forks are now made in a wide range of notes and used for a range of purposes. Granton Medical claims to be the only UK manufacturer and has made tuning forks in Sheffield since the 1840s. It makes forks for musical, medical and scientific purposes.
Tuning forks can be used in medicine to assess patients’ hearing. But they also have other medical uses. The Rydel-Seiffer fork can be used to check vibration sense in the peripheral nervous system. It has high specificity and good sensitivity in the diagnosis of diabetic foot problems and is a good alternative to the much more expensive biothesiometer for estimating the vibration perception threshold.