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Research > Sonic Events

Sonic Events

These research notes consider early recordings, broadcasts, and other interesting sonic events as connected to the experimental nature of Radio Nouspace. Background information and listening opportunities are provided.


Sound from Vocal Tract of 3,000 Year Old Mummy Synthesized

The vocal tract of a 3,000 year old mummified individual was reproduced using 3-D printing technology. When connected to a Vocal Tact Organ, a musical instrument using 3-D printed vocal tracts, the mummy's recreated vocal tract produced a single sound for its shape. This is hardly the dead speaking, but the synthesized vowel sound does compare favorably with those expressed by contemporary, living individuals.

Howard, D.M., J. Schofield, J. Fletcher, K. Baxter, G.R. Iball and S.A. Buckley. Synthesis of a Vocal Sound from the 3,000 year old Mummy, Nesyamun 'True of Voice'. Nature, 20 Jan. 2020.


Sounds from the Planet Mars

As humankind explores the solar system, and space beyond, sounds collected by landers and probes can provide useful scientific information. For example, NASA's Mars lander InSight uses a vibration detector placed on the Martian surface to detect earthquakes in the planet's interior. The InSight lander can also hear wind blowing across the surface of Mars. A drill and the lander's robotic arm also produce sounds that can help us learn more about Mars. Sounds detected by the InSight lander were sped up and processed by NASA engineers to make them audible to humans. These sounds were combined in a mixtape, NASA's InSight at Work on Mars. Use headphones for the best listening experience of this soundscape from Mars.

Another example . . . researchers have sonified (turned into sound) a photograph taken by the Mars rover Opportunity of the 5,000th sunrise it has witnessed while exploring the Martian planet. The result is an interesting musical composition. LEARN more at the Astronomy website.


Golden Record, First Interstellar Time Capsule

Spacecraft Voyager 2 was launched 20 August 1977. Voyager 1 was launched on 5 September. Both spacecraft were to explore all the major planets of our solar system and then continue into interstellar space. Both carried a Golden Record, a 12-inch gold-plated copper disk containing sounds and images portraying the diversity of life and culture on Earth.

A committee chaired by Carl Sagan of Cornell University assembled 115 photographic scenes from Earth, greetings from the United Nations Secretary General, spoken greetings to the universe in fifty-five languages, spoken greetings from United Nations Representatives and whale greetings, a collage of sounds of Earth, and ninety minutes of musical selections from different cultures.

These Golden Records represent a sonic time capsule, designed to provide a narrative about life on Earth to any civilizations who encounter the spacecraft. This could take some time, however. It will be forty thousand years before they approach another planetary system. LEARN more.


Sputnik, First Artificial Earth Satellite

Sputnik 1 was the first artificial satellite to orbit Earth. Launched by the Soviet Union, 4 October 1957, Sputnik (Russian for "satellite") was about the size of a beach ball and weighed 183 pounds. It orbited Earth in an elliptical path, 583 miles above the Earth at its highest point, 143 miles at its lowest. Each orbit took about 98 minutes, during which Sputnik 1 transmitted a continuous chirp. This was the sound of the beginning of "The Space Age." After three weeks, Sputnik's batteries were exhausted, and the satellite fell silent. On 4 January 1958, Sputnik 1 fell from its orbit and burned up upon entering Earth's atmosphere.


First Broadcast of a Presidential Debate

The first debate between United States presidential hopefuls to be broadcast on radio was that of Thomas Dewey, governor of New York, and Harold Stassen, former governor of Minnesota. Both sought the Republican nomination to run against President Harry Truman. They met in Portland, Oregon, 17 May 1948, at the KEX radio station. Dewey and Stassen debated the question, "Should the Communist Party in the United States be outlawed?" Each candidate spoke for twenty minutes, then addressed rebuttal for eight minutes. No cross examination, no questions from reporters (more than fifty listened from behind a glass wall but were not allowed to ask questions). Stassen argued for the affirmative; Dewey the negative. There were no commercial interruptions. The debate was carried by three national radio networks to an estimated audience of forty million listeners. Dewey was considered the winner and went on to secure the Republication nomination. He lost the election, however, to Truman.


Edward R. Murrow: Eye Witness Reports

While Gibbons may have been the first news commentator (see below), many consider Edward R. Murrow (1908-1965) the greatest radio news commentator of all time. Murrow is noted for his cogent point of view, deliberate speaking style, and strong visual images.

"Tonight, as on every other night, the rooftop watchers are peering out across the fantastic forest of London's chimney pots. The anti-aircraft gunners stand ready.

"I have been walking tonight—there is a full moon, and the dirty-gray buildings appear white. The stars, the empty windows, are hidden. It's a beautiful and lonesome city where men and women and children are trying to snatch a few hours sleep underground."

Born in North Carolina, raised in Washington, and a graduate from Washington State University, Murrow was in Europe at the start of World War II. CBS radio soon realized Murrow's personal reports could provide eye witness to unfolding events. One of his most poignant was a 24 August 1940 live report from London's Trafalgar Square during a German air raid.

His 15 April 1945 report after visiting the Buchenwald Concentration Camp is noted as one of radio's finest moments.


George Hicks' D-Day Dispatch

George Hicks' D-Day dispatch is considered one of the best recordings made during World War II. Hicks, the 38-year-old London bureau chief for the Blue Network, a predecessor of the American Broadcasting Company (ABC), was aboard the communications ship USS Ancon as it stood off the French coast just before midnight, 6 June 1944.

It was D-Day, the opening of the Allied amphibious invasion of Europe—the largest in history; codename Operation Overlord—seeking to drive out the German army. Hicks recorded on-the-scene what he saw of other ships in the convoy and fierce fighting against German airplanes using an early tape machine known as a Recordgraph.

All that remains of his original dispatch is perhaps this segment which is both frightening and iconic as it conveys in real time the sounds of D-Day, one of the most important events of the 20th century.


First Radio Broadcast To Confuse Audience en masse

The War of the Worlds, a radio drama adapted from the novel by H. G. Wells, is considered the most (in)famous radio broadcast ever; a powerful narrative, based primarily on sound. Produced by and starring Orson Welles, along with the cast and crew of The Mercury Theatre on the Air, this broadcast created havoc on 30 October 1938, Halloween night, when many listeners thought Earth was invaded by Martians. LEARN more.


First "Live on Location" Radio Report: Hindenburg Explosion

On 6 May 1937, at 7:00 PM Eastern Time, following a sixty-hour transatlantic flight, the German dirigible LZ 129 Hindenburg caught fire just short of its mooring mast at the Lakehurst, New Jersey, Naval Air Station. At 811 feet in length, the Hindenburg was the largest dirigible ever built and the pride of the National Socialist (Nazi) government in Germany. Because the United States denied Germany access to helium, the Hindenburg was held aloft by highly-flammable hydrogen. When it caught fire approaching its mooring, the Hindenburg burned and crashed to the ground within seconds. Thirty-six people were killed.

The event was witnessed (eye and ear) by Herb Morrison (1905-1989), a reporter from WLS Radio in Chicago, Illinois. Morrison and engineer Charle Nehlsen were experimenting with recording an event for later broadcast. The equipment they used, like a giant record player, used a stylus to cut grooves in a spinning 16-inch laquer disk. The big laquer disk was spinning and Morrison was calmly recording his commentary as the Hindenburg approached the mooring mast.

When the Hindenburg exploded, Morrison quickly lost his reporter's objectivity to subjective horror. Overwhelmed with emotion, he paused his reporting, returning later with additional information about the scene and survivors. Recording completed, Morrison and Nehlsen avoided German SS officers investigating the accident before returning to Chicago. Their recording was broadcast the next day, 7 May 1937 on WLS radio. LEARN more.


Floyd Phillips Gibbons: First Radio News Reporter/Commentator?

One of the first, and fastest talking, radio news reporters / commentators was Floyd Phillips Gibbons (1887-1939) who came to national attention while reporting on the 1916 skirmishes between Francisco (Pancho) Villa and U.S. Army under the command of Brigadier General John J. Pershing, who led an invasion of Mexico to capture Villa. Gibbons' swashbuckling style conveyed the adventure he was having. He applied his rapid-fire, derring-do delivery to his 1929 series The Headline Hunter where he related dramatic war stories at 217 words a minute. Gibbons was the leading radio reporter until he was replaced by Lowell Thomas.

In this example, Gibbons reports on a March 1936 flood of New England's Connecticut River Valley. During two weeks, three consecutive downpours were among the largest and heaviest in U.S. history. Fifteen states in the northeastern U.S. were flooded. Despite, or even because of, his rapid delivery style, Gibbons' report provides an immersive narrative for the listener


First Parody of Radio?

The first parody of radio may have been performed and recorded by The Happiness Boys, William "Billy" Reese Jones (1889-1940) and Thomas Ernest "Ernie" Hare (1881-1939).

Often billed as "The Radio Twins," Jones and Hare started their radio careers on 18 October 1921, broadcasting on WJZ in Newark, New Jersey, sponsored by the Happiness Candy Stores, and hence their name. On 23 August 1923, Jones and Hare moved to radio station WEAF in New York, where they remained until 1929.

For each show, Jones and Hare sang light or comic songs and engaged in humorous banter between. They specialized in comic songs that commented on trends or popular culture, and their "Twisting the Dials" was perhaps the first parody of the young radio medium.

Recorded at two different sessions 31 October (Part 1) and 12 November (Part 2) 1928, and issued on both sides of Victor 35953, a 12" 78 rpm record, the mix of pre-recorded 78 rpm samples of ethnic, rural, opera, chamber, novelty, jazz and march music, comic announcements, chatter, and sound effects simulated the experience of tuning a radio to random stations. LEARN more.


Early Radio Broadcast Hoax

An early radio hoax was broadcast on 16 January 1926, on BBC [1]. The program, "Broadcasting from the Barricades," interrupted an apparent legitimate talk on 18th century British literature with a 12-minute series of news bulletins about a riot in London, with Big Ben blown up by mortars, the Savoy Hotel burnt down, and a politician lynched on a tramway post. The program was written by Father Ronald Knox, a Catholic priest. At the time, BBC was the only radio station and bad weather delayed the delivery of the next day's newspapers, making it easier for people to think the reports were real.[2] LEARN more.


First Radio Advertisement

On Monday, 28 August 1922, radio changed forever. The radio medium was relatively new. Nobody knew how to make it earn money. But station WEAF, New York, had an idea. Anyone who wanted could buy access to the air waves and promote their message. WEAF was the first commercial radio station to sell advertising to sponsors.

The Hawthorne Court Apartments, in Jackson Heights, New York, was the first to offer an advertisement on radio. When an official of Hawthorne Court recorded his sales pitch the die was cast. From that point forward, radio stations across the country sold packages of air time to interested advertisers. The commercial model of radio was born. The original advertisement is lost, but on the 30th Anniversary of WEAF, it was recreated. [1]

Radio advertising continued to develop. A highlight of the power of sound to engage the imaginations of radio listeners is "Stretching the Imagination" by Stan Freberg (1943-2015). [2] Freberg, a radio comedian, produced a six-part series for the Station Representatives Association in 1965 to promote radio advertising. "Stretching the Imagination," the second of the series, features a 700-foot tall mountain of whipped cream sliding into Lake Michigan, which has been drained of water and refilled with hot chocolate. A 10-ton cherry is dropped atop the whipped cream to the cheers of 25,000 extras. The vocal skit was reused in "Anybody Here Remember Radio?" as part of Freberg's 1966 record album, Freberg Underground! Show No. 1 (Capitol Records T 2551; Side B, Track 2, 4:25).


First Radio Station

KDKA, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, operated by engineer Frank Conrad (1874-1941), who had experimented with radio since 1912, became the first licensed radio station in the United States, 27 October 1920. Conrad began broadcasting music and sports scores from his barn-research lab at the Westinghouse Electric Company in East Pittsburgh, in the spring of 1920.

On 2 November, from a shack on the roof of the Westinghouse Electric Company, KDKA delivered its first scheduled broadcast: returns for the 1920 Presidential election between Warren G. Harding and James M. Cox. Allegedly, the broadcast began at 6:00 PM and lasted until noon the following day. It was heard by about 1,000 listeners, as far away as Canada.

Creating the broadcast were announcer Leo Rosenberg, engineer William Thomas, telephone line operator John Frazier, and standby R. S. McClelland. Listen to this recreation by Rosenberg, believed to be radio's first announcer.

Radio station KDKA could be heard "throughout the United States" at night (L. Coe. Wireless Radio: A Brief History. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1996. 26).


First US Radio Drama?

There are several contenders for the title of first radio drama in the United States. Harry M. Geduld notes an original sketch by Henry Fisk Carlton entitled The Three Elevens, broadcast in 1926, as the first radio drama. The next year, in 1927, he says, Carlton and William Ford Manley wrote the first radio adaptations, brief plays based on short stories by O. Henry (Geduld 1991, 260).
Geduld, Harry M. "Welles or Wells?—A Matter of Adaptation." Perspectives on Orson Welles. Edited by Morris Beja. G.K. Hall, 1995, pp. 260-272.

Robert L. Hilliard and Michael C. Keith say the first regularly scheduled dramatic radio series, billed as WGY Players, began with a 1908 three act play by Eugene Walter entitled The Wolf, adapted for radio by Edward H. Smith and broadcast by radio station WGY in Schenectady, New York, in September 1922 (Hilliard and Keith, 1997, 32). Richard J. Hand and Mary Traynor repeat this claim (Hand and Traynor 2011, 15). See also Tim Crook (Crook 1999, 3-41.)

Henry Zecher, dates broadcast of The Wolf as 3 August 1922 (Zecher 2011, 531). This date is corroborated by John Schneider writing in The Radio Historian (Schneider 2011) and a small booklet published by the General Electric Company to celebrate the 25th anniversary of WGY, which offered its first broadcast 20 February 1922. Notable are photographs of The WGY Players in the WGY studio (WGY-Up the years from '22 1947). LEARN more.

According to Bill Jaker, the first dramatic sketch written specifically for American radio was A Rural Line on Education, broadcast by radio station KDKA, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1921 (Jaker, 1998). Jaker says the sketch was prepared by West Virginia University agricultural education professors H. B. Allen and Paul C. Rouzer as part of their invited appearance on the "National Stockman and Farmer Hour" radio show to discuss vocational education courses. Their short play was scripted as an overheard telephone call between two farmers (voiced by Allen and Rouzer). Their chat was interrupted by others wanting to use the party line. After a few such interruptions, Allen and Rouzer hung up, concluding the play, and Stockman Sam, the show's host, delivered the closing remarks.
Jaker, Bill (1998). Email post to the OTR Digest, 27 March 1998.

John Schneider reports a broadcast of a stage play, around 1914, by Charles "Doc" Herrold (see below) and his students at Herrold College of Wireless and Engineering, San Jose, California, around 1914. According to Schneider, Herrold and students used microphones and telephone lines to transmit the play's dialogue, from the auditorium at Normal College, now California State University at San Jose, to a transmitter in a nearby building (Schneider History of KQW/KCBS).
Schneider, John. The History of KQW/KCBS San Jose/San Francisco, California.


Sound of WW1 Armistice

11 November 1918. World War 1, a global war begun in Europe in 1914, ended. The fighting, the gunfire, the artillery barrages, everything stopped at 11:00 AM. Peace, and quiet, returned.

There is no sonic record of this transition as practical, portable recording technology was not available. But, there is this very interesting interpretation, a collaboration between the Imperial War Museum and Coda to Coda. LEARN more.


"Doc" Herrold: First Radio Broadcaster?

Charles David "Doc" Herrold founded Herrold College of Wireless and Engineering, in San Jose, California, in January 1909 for the purpose of experimenting with the transmission of voice and music using the wireless telephone. Until 1917, Herrold trained young people to send and receive Morse code so they could get jobs as wireless telegraphic operators.

In 1908, Herrold began experimenting with sending voice and music via radio waves. Inspired by the San Jose street lights, Herrold, by 1912, had invented and received patents for a radio telephone system to increase and utilize the high frequency waves created by arc lights for transmitting voice and music. Using the call letters "FN" and "SJN," or simply "Herrold Station," Herrold transmitted with his "arc phone" several hours every day, transmitting phonograph recordings and conversation from Herrold College to a San Francisco hotel fifty miles distant. These two-way radio telephone communication experiments were heard by hundreds of West Coast operators.

Beginning in 1912, every Wednesday evening at 8:00 PM, Herrold provided a scheduled and pre-announced broadcast called "Little Hams Program" consisting of music and information to an audience of homemade crystal radio enthusiasts. [1] Herrold's program quickly became popular and listeners would telephone with music requests. One reason for the program's popularity was the announcer, Herrold's young wife Sybil, who may have been the first woman to broadcast a radio program.

During the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exhibition in San Francisco, Herrold broadcasted daily entertainment from his San Jose station to receiving stations at the Palace of Fine Arts. Thousands of fair goers were able to listen to Herrold's day-long broadcasts, experiencing radio broadcasting of voice for the first time.

In 1917, Herrold's station was silenced by government order in connection with World War I. Radio inventors and operators were directed to apply their skills to the war effort. Herrold trained hundreds of radio operators. Herrold's station was silent until 12 April 1919. In 1920, the Department of Commerce began licensing radio stations. In 1921 Herrold's station, now built around vacuum tube technology, was licensed as KQW. Failing financially, Herrold lost KQW in 1925.

On 10 November 1945, actor Jack Webb (who went on to fame as Sgt. Joe Friday on the popular Dragnet radio and television series) portrayed Herrold for a one hour radio dramatization broadcast on KQW, "The Story of KQW." The only surviving recording of Herrold's voice was made for this program.

Herrold's radio station became became San Francisco's KCBS in 1949, and Herrold remains known as the first person to broadcast regularly scheduled entertainment programming. These efforts developed the first radio audience. LEARN more.


First Political Recordings

Delivering speeches has long been a major part of American politics. With the introduction of recording devices, like Thomas Edison's phonograph, candidates had the opportunity to share their campaign messages with wider audiences.

At first, actors read and recorded the flowery speeches of candidates. But, during the 1908 Presidential campaign, the two candidates, William Jennings Bryan and William Howard Taft, recorded twenty two campaign speeches on Edison National Phonograph Company wax cylinders (10 cylinders by Bryan; 12 by Taft). Both candidates also recorded speeches for the Victor Record Company and the Columbia Phonograph Company.

Copies of these recordings were sold across the country (the first commercial recordings of political candidates) and frequently played at political gatherings, one after another, without either candidate being present at the simulated debate. The recording capacity of each Edison cylinder was two and a half minutes, so Bryan and Taft had to be precise with their statements. Intolerably long by today's standards, these speeches were the start of the movement toward "sound bites," routinely heard a few years later by audiences listening to the new technology, radio.

Bryan's speeches were recorded first, probably in May 1908, by Harold Vorhese, an Edison employee, in Bryan's Lincoln, Nebraska, home, and released in June. Taft's speeches were recorded in August. In this example, Bryan, the presumed Democratic candidate, and Taft, the presumed Republican candidate, speak to United States Imperialism in the Philippine Islands. Bryan speaks first, followed by Taft.


First Radio Voice Broadcast?

The first successful radio transmission of speech may have been on 23 December 1900 by Reginald Aubrey Fessenden (1866-1932), a Canadian inventor known for his pioneering experiments with radio, while working for the United States Weather Bureau at Rock Point, Maryland.

Fessenden successfully transmitted a few words a distance of about one mile. Despite the lack of clarity, Fessenden's experiment proved that voice could be transmitted via radio waves.

Although not recorded, here is how Fessenden's first wireless radio broadcast might have sounded . . .
Hello, test.
1, 2, 3, 4.
Is it snowing where you are Mr. Beaman?
If it is, telegraph back and let me know.

LEARN more.


Earliest Known Recording of a Public Musical Event?

The earliest known recording of a public musical event outside a recording studio, a "field recording," may be "Israel in Egypt," recorded at The Crystal Palace, 29 June 1888 by Col. George E. Gouraud. The choir and orchestra are barely audible above the scratchy noise of the wax cylinder on which the recording was made, but they can be heard, like ethereal ghosts from more than a century ago. This excerpt is from Cylinder 1, "Moses and the Children of Israel," the chorus at the start of part II. LEARN more.


Volta Laboratory Associates Experiments

The Volta Laboratory Associates, funded by Alexander Graham Bell and directed by Charles Sumner Tainter, competing against Thomas Edison, experimented with sound recording and playback 1881-1885. Several surviving discs featuring recorded voices anticipate the grammophone disc of Emile Berliner, patented in November 1887, itself the ancestor of phonograph records so well know in the twentieth century. LEARN more.


Earliest Playable Recording?

The earliest playable recording of human voice and the first recording of a musical performance were both demonstrated 22 June 1878, in St. Louis, Missouri, using an Edison phonograph.

Thomas Edison, in 1877, invented the phonograph, which used a funnel to direct sound to a stylus that recorded sound waves on tinfoil attached to a cylinder revolving beneath the stylus. When a recording was made, the operator used a hand crank to turn the cylinder again. The stylus converted the inscriptions on the tinfoil back into sound waves.

Edison sold a tinfoil phonograph, serial number 8, to Thomas Mason, a St. Louis newspaper political writer, who, under his pen name, I. X. Peck, offered a public phonograph program on 22 June, 1878.

For his demonstration, Mason used a sheet of tinfoil, 5 inches wide by 15 inches long, placed on the phonograph's cylinder. He used a hand crank to turn the cylinder under the stylus. The demonstration begins with a series of clicks, the result of scars where the tinfoil was folded for more than a century. Next is heard a 23-second coronet solo of an unidentified song. Then, a man's voice (believed to be Mason) recites
Mary had a little lamb
Its fleece was white as snow.
And everywhere that Mary went
The lamb was sure to go.

Mason laughs, and then recites the opening of "Old Mother Hubbard" incorrectly. He laughs again, and says, "Look at me; I don't now the song."

Some have suggested the higher pitched voice in this segment is that of a woman, but more likely it is a result of the tinfoil cylinder rotating too slowly. LEARN more.


Earliest Known Sound Recording?

The earliest known sound recording was made by Edouard-Léon Scott de Martinville, a French typesetter and sometimes inventor.

One of his inventions was the phonoautograph, a device to visualize sound. Scott built a funnel that directed sound to a diaphragm connected to a stiff bristle. As a lamp-soot blackened paper cylinder was turned by a hand crank under the bristle, a representation of the sound was inscribed in the soot. Scott designed his phonoautograph (sound writing) to visualize, not reproduce, sound.

Scott sold several phonoautographs for sound research, but did not profit from his invention. In 2008, using specially-designed computer software, researchers lead by Carl Haber, at California's Berkeley Lab, reproduced the sounds recorded on one of Scott's paper rolls. What they heard was a high-pitched, child-like voice singing the first lines of "Au Clair de la Lune [By the Light of the Moon]," a French folk song dating to at least the mid-18th Century . . .
Au clair de la lune [In the light of the moon]
Mon ami Pierrot [Pierrot, my friend]
próte moi . . .

Some say the voice is Scott's, altered in pitch because the playback is at a higher speed than the original recording. Others say it belongs to a child, perhaps a woman. In either case, what it lacks in length (a brief eleven seconds), the earliest known sound recording of a human voice makes up with its ethereal, haunting quality. LEARN more.