Alejandra Bronfman of the UBC Department of History delivers an STS colloquium talk entitled “In Search of the Radiolette, In the Grip of Invisible Rays” on Thursday, November 22, 5:00-6:30pm in Buchanan Tower 1197.
In December of 1919, William McGaffick stated in sworn testimony that he had been driven to near insanity by his enemies, who spied on him using the principle that “using wireless telephone apparatus, a beam of invisible rays may be directed to a person’s throat. Using a beam of invisible rays directed to the throat, the microphonic sounds made by the vocal cords may be carried by the beam of rays to the wireless telephone apparatus, and amplified by the apparatus until heard by the operator of said apparatus. This is a well-known principle.”
During the early years of radio technology, technicians, scientists and industry leaders collected possibilities, some strange and some strangely prescient, for the optimal relationship between electronically transmitted noise and human bodies. This paper will explore some of those possibilities and their implications for our understanding of the shifting boundary between ears, sound, electricity, and wires. From David Sarnoff’s “radiolette” and “radio coat” to the claims of McGaffick that people were torturing him by “telephoning him from a distance” using only wireless telephone apparatus, the use of electronic sound was in this period frequently conceived as an extension of, rather than wholly distinct from, the human body. The distinction between nature and technology was both at stake and ignored when radio was new.