The sounds of science

Do you remember the sound of a telephone ringing in the early 1990s? That polyphonic ringtone so reminiscent of the life of that decade…

Do you remember the sound of using a telephone in the 1990s? The flat noises the cheap plastic buttons on the interface made when you pushed on them, the wound-up cord flopping over the wooden table, the clackety-clack of the switch when you plunged it into the chassis, wondering why you couldn’t hear a voice on the other side, the closing allegro of the handset coming to rest, almost surely time for you to stop eavesdropping on the teacher-parent phone call.

In case you were wondering, science has everything to do with these sounds, noises and other music – as much as it had everything to do with why telephones and other such devices were in your house in the first place. However, while their underlying principles are carefully recorded in the scientific literature and preserved for decades, while our encounters with their designs is memorialised in trends and encoded in interfaces of the future, the sounds find refuge only in our memories, where they slowly fade away.

We must endeavour to preserve them better because they embody a cultural experience of our carefully, ergonomically crafted world. They are the inadvertent, nonetheless persistent, products of an older scientific vision that only saw far enough to say every person must be able to speak to every other person almost instantaneously. The vision did not anticipate the sound but the sound is what defined our day-to-day engagement with technology.

This is what a project, called ‘Conserve the Sound’, has been trying to do. Funded by the Film and Media Foundation NRW, Germany, it is:

… an online museum for vanishing and endangered sounds. The sound of a dial telephone, a walkman, a analog typewriter, a pay phone, a 56k modem, a nuclear power plant or even a cell phone keypad are partially already gone or are about to disappear from our daily life.

Almost all the products featured on their site – from tabletop ventilators to the engines of the Junkers Ju 52 aircraft – are of German origin but that does not diminish the nostalgia trip. Why, use the site long enough and browse through enough sounds you recognise, and you might soon be tempted to sample ones that you never got the chance to hear growing up.

The Wire
September 14, 2018