10 Times Humanity Found the Answer (and Then Forgot)

Stradivarius Violins
A close-up look at a 300-year-old Stradivarius violin, created by king of strings Antonio Stradivari. Chris Hondros/Newsmakers

Does it change our view of a lost art when we've learned the trick to how it was done? If we could, as is suggested in the film "Head Office," mass-produce violins that look, sound and smell like Stradivari's famed instruments, would we stop valuing the originals?

We doubt it. In fact, understanding, as we now do, how Antonio Stradivari brought the violin to its highest form at the turn of the 18th century only elevates our respect for the feat. For Stradivari's contributions extend far beyond the unusual woods or special varnishes to which many credited his instruments' stellar sound; they encompass the evolution of the violin itself. Stradivari helped to work out the violin's ideal shape and size, from designing a new bridge to stretching the body and making it shallower [sources: Encyclopedia Britannica, Encyclopedia Smithsonian].

It's true that the secrets of Stradivari's shop in Cremona, Italy — which also made cellos, guitars, harps and violas — have been lost for more than 250 years and that modern scholars have yet to discover the secret of his varnish [sources: Encyclopedia Britannica, Encyclopedia Smithsonian]. But it's also true that experts no longer consider the chemicals in the varnish — intended to protect the wood from worms — to be the solo contender for explaining the violins' evocative sound. Modern analysis suggests a blend of first-chair contenders, including a careful ratio of material thicknesses in the top and back plates, the arrangement of tiny pores in the wood and some as-yet unidentified chemical treatments [sources: Conner, RSNA, Texas A&M University].