This article was published in the Tri-Valley Herald (Livermore, CA area) in the late ’60’s or early ’70’s. I have lost the original and cannot credit it properly from the dog-eared copy I found recently.
The Sound of History
As I get older, I keep bumping into bits of information that I feel I should have known all my life, but which no one ever bothered to tell me.
For example, this year marks the 70th anniversary of the invention of the loudspeaker, a device that is now an integral part of our daily lives. Edison’s original phonograph was a purely mechanical device, and the sound it produced was mechanically enhanced by the use of a large goosenecked horn. Until 1915, so was the sound emanating from any sonic device – a weak sound, incapable of being heard clearly from a distance of more than a few feet.
It wasn’t until the loudspeaker was invented, to electronically amplify these puny mechanical vibrations, that the groundwork was laid for the panoply of sound that currently surrounds us – radio in our cars, television and stereo speakers in our homes, ghetto blasters on the street, public address systems at the ballpark, all the voices and all the music that now inform and entertain us every day.
And it wasn’t until just last week that I learned the loudspeaker was invented in my old hometown, just a few blocks from where I grew up.
My hometown is Napa, and the revelation came by way of an article in the Napa Register, by staff writer Kevin Courtney, earlier this month.
From it, I discovered that the human voice was amplified for the first time by two men working out of a farmhouse on F Street in Napa. I suppose I passed that little house hundreds of times in my youth without ever being aware of the history that had been made there.
The two men were Edwin Pridham and Peter Jensen, a pair of San Francisco inventors who came to Napa in 1911 because it was “an isolated place” and, as Jensen later wrote, “permitted us to work along with a single purpose in mind, undisturbed by expert technical advice and by businessmen who certainly could predict nothing but ultimate failure for our new adventure.”
Pridham and Jensen had originally set out to invent a wireless telephone receiver. When that went nowhere, they tried to improve the conventional telephone, but their final device was so bulky no one would buy it.
One day a blacksmith friend of theirs named Ray Galbreath suggested they might put a horn on their telephone and make it talk louder. This set them thinking about a process that might amplify any sort of sound, and they began to work out a system for doing it.
They took a horn from an Edison cylinder phonograph, microphones from some of their earlier unsuccessful experiments, a transformer and a 12-volt battery and wired them together into what – even though they didn’t know it at the time – was the equivalent of a 25-watt sound system.
Then they turned the rig on and spoke into the microphone – and the sound nearly blew the roof off the house.
It tickles me to think about that moment. It’s hard to imagine what the first amplified sounds must have done to the mind of someone who had never heard amplified sound before.
In his journal, Jensen wrote: “The howling was probably thousands of times louder that any we had heard before, and it burst upon us so unexpectedly that we were amazed.”
“We disconnected the system again, but we knew now we stood on the threshold of something great. In the shortest possible time, we ran a line up to the roof of our bungalow and we placed the loudspeaker on top of the chimney, with the horn pointing northwest, out towards the open country.”
Jensen stood outside, and Pridham spoke into the mike. “It sounded like a voice not of this earth,” Jensen recalled. “Had I closed my eyes it would have been easy to imagine that a supernatural colossus was shouting up the chimney.”
And then, overcome with excitement and elation, Jensen began to run. He ran down roads, across open fields-almost a full mile before he could no longer clearly hear his partners voice.
And when, breathless, he finally got back to the little house, Pridham ran outside, jumped on his bicycle, and began to pedal away from the source of the sound.
“There was great jubilation among us that day,” wrote Jensen. “We felt sure we had taken part in history in the making, for on that winter day in Napa we had heard a human voice which was far louder than any ever heard before anywhere in the world.”
The company Pridham and Jensen formed to market their invention was the one we know today as Magnavox (Latin for “great voice”). Pridham stayed with that company all his life; Jensen later established the Jensen speaker empire.
But there was another entry in Jensen’s journal that delighted me. “The nights in Napa Valley are frequently surprisingly quiet, and conditions are very favorable for sending sound through the air over great distances. Using our powerful sound system, we often played music in the early evening for the entertainment of all the townspeople. We would put the loudspeaker on the chimney and point it towards the town and our music could be heard plainly all over.”
What a marvel that must have been to anyone who heard it.
How come nobody in Napa ever told me about that when I was a kid? Until last week, I’d never heard it mentioned.