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from the ATCS Newsletter, November 1996.


It seems reasonable that early devices for providing artificial aid in speaking and hearing at distances should have been "speaking trumpets" and "ear trumpets". These devices, although they have been re-invented in modern times, probably date back far into antiquity. It is difficult to believe that primitive man did not shout through his hands formed into a sort of trumpet as we do today when we wish to send our voice to a distance beyond its natural range. Or that he did not cup his hand to his ear as we do today to increase the acuity of our hearing.

Much has been written of the "monstrous trumpets of the ancient Chinese" which were instruments by which words could not only be heard at the greatest distance possible, but could also be understood. These accounts were not always based on hard fact and some believe that trumpets were a product of the 17th century particularly in England.

An early "public address system" was installed in a large palatial mansion so that chamber music played inside the house was picked up and broadcast to listeners outside the house (Fig. 1). This, like all trumpets, makes use of the simple principle of physics that sound can be transmitted for considerable distances by concentrating the waves and forcing them to travel in one direction.

Writers of the 17th century told of military trumpets used for communication by Alexander the Great and imagined them to be huge devices suspended from a tripod (Fig. 2).

An elaborate "eavesdropping" device was supposed to have been developed by Denis, Tyrant of Syracuse, who ruled from 405 to 367 BC. The palace of Denis was supposed to have been riddled with funnels, which picked up court gossip and transmitted it to "speakers" hidden behind statues in other parts of the palace (Fig. 3). By stationing trusted men near these statues, Denis was able to keep abreast of any brewing unrest or revolution.

According to one account, the largest trumpet employed in England was 5 ft. 6 ins. long with a diameter of 21 ins. at the large end and 2 ins. at the small end. When, by His Majesty's special command, it was tried at Deal Castle by the Governor thereof, the voice was plainly heard off at sea as far as the King's ships usually ride, which is between two and three miles, at a time when the wind blew from the shore.

The year 1844 saw an Englishman, Captain J. N. Taylor invent what he called a 'telephone'. The chief object of this powerful wind instrument was to convey signals during foggy weather (Fig. 4.). Four different notes could be produced by the operator pressing buttons with one hand while frantically turning the handle with the other to produce compressed air. The Illustrated London News of the time called the invention a 'Marine Alarum and Signal Trumpet'. It was in reality, a fog horn used at sea just like the steam whistle was used on the railways.

Another variation on the type of trumpets described above is what is now known as the musical trumpet or bugle. These devices were commonly used in military actions to pass information to the troops. A number of disasters have been recorded however where, due to distance and the noise of battle, the bugle call to retreat has not been heard and many a brave soldier has gone to his maker.

What we now know as the 'ear trumpet' was evidently exhibited at the Royal Society in London in 1668 under the name 'otacousticon'. This device must be surely credited as being the fore-runner of the hearing-aid.

The speaking trumpet, as distinguished from the ear trumpet, came into prominence about 1670. A controversy arose between rival claimants for the honour of its invention. One of the claimants, in a 1671 treatise on the invention, referred to it as 'Tuba Stentoro-Phonica'.

It is interesting to note, in connection with this speaking and ear trumpet concept, that the 'megaphone' as a device for aiding in hearing has been attributed to Edison. What Edison did was to bring his genius to bear on the crude devices of ancient times. Edison's biograthers wrote "The modern megaphone, now used universally in making announcements to large crowds, particularly at sporting events, is due also to this period as a perfection by Edison of many antecedent devices going back much further than the legendry funnels through which Alexander the Great is said to have sent commands to his outlying forces. The improved Edison magaphone for long distance work comprised two horns of wood or metal about six feet long, tapered from a diameter of 2 ft. 6 ins. at the mouth to a small aperture provided with ear tubes. These converging horns, with a large speaking trumpet between them, were mounted on a tripod. Conversation can be carried on at a distance of over two miles, as with a ship or balloon.

The improved Edison


Another medium through which sound could be carried over distances was by means of what we now know as the speaking tube. One account, published prior to 1589, makes reference to a tube of earthenware, though one of lead is better. It was speculated that this would work for some miles although equipment for testing over just over one hundred paces was all that was available at the time.

In the year 1845, the Gutta-Percha Company was formed to produce 'speaking tubes'. These 'small and cheap Railway Conversation Tubes', according to company publicity, enabled parties 'to converse with ease and pleasure, whilst travelling, not withstanding the noise of the train. This can be done in so soft a wisper as not to be overheard even by a fellow traveller. They are portable, and will coil up so as to be placed inside a hat'. There was an application in omnibuses too, 'the saving of labour to the lungs of the conductor is very great, as a message given in a soft voice is distinctly heard by the driver'.

The Gutta-Percha Company expanded their business and by the 1850s they were marketing speaking tubes for use in houses. These found particular favour in the residences of medical doctors who could speak to patients and messengers at the front door without leaving their beds. They became known as the "Medical Man's Midnight Friend". Testimonials from many doctors spoke of "no fears of the communication of disease by speaking tube" and "saves from the injurious effects of being exposed to the current of cold air from an open window."

Speaking tubes were often employed in steamships as a means of communication between bridge and engine room. A whistle resided in the mouth of the tube at each end and, to summon the engine room, the captain would remove his whistle and blow into the tube. The sound of the whistle in the engine room would summon the engineer who would remove his whistle and converse with the captain. In early steamships, these devices were the means of engine control before the mechanical bridge telegraph came into being. Not surprisingly, sailors soon christened them "the blower", a term they had hitherto used for a certain type of woman.

Speaking tubes were also employed in the theatre, between stage and flys. They were built into the walls of offices so that principals could converse whilst seated. In households they were labour-saving and an advantage over bells as often the servant had to make two journeys, one to receive the instruction and a second to carry it out. Short tubes were also said to be placed in the lids of coffins so that the body could indicate if it was not yet ready for burial.


"Telephone Scrapbook" by Ron Knappen.
"A History of Communications" by Maurice Fabre.
"Person to Person" by Peter Young.

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