Documentary series. A look at the unsung heroes who allowed us to transport our voices over long distances - one of the greatest transformations in how we live our lives.
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RADIO: 'Today's forecast is cloudy but mild...'
Imagine a world without the ability to capture or transmit sound.
Every word we spoke would be lost forever. There'd be no phones,
no radios, no rock concerts for mass audiences.
So, how did we conquer sound?
It was an unknown printer who created the first ever
recording of the human voice, though no-one heard it for 150 years.
It sounds kind of like a horror movie soundtrack, I have to say.
And a beautiful movie star who helped give us
privacy on our mobile phones.
She'd rather spend the night at home reading
Scientific American than going out to some glamorous party.
These are classic examples of the kind of people who actually
made the modern world.
And their stories are probably ones you've never heard.
They're hobbyists and garage inventors,
maverick characters doing extraordinary things.
What I love is that these pioneers didn't just give us mastery over
sound, but they also set in motion an amazing chain reaction of ideas.
Resulting in innovations that would go on to affect every
aspect of our lives.
From the world of work.
To race relations.
And changing our cities.
I want to show how the link between all these apparently
unconnected worlds starts with the unsung heroes of sound.
All my career, I've been fascinated by ideas and innovation,
from writing books about the great British innovators
of the Enlightenment or the Industrial Revolution, to my work
with Silicon Valley start-ups. And what I've learned about innovation
is that the experiences of the past are still the best road map for our
future, and that's why I want to tell you story of how we got to now.
It's almost a sacred experience.
The desire to capture and share another human voice.
MUSIC: Habanera from Carmen by Bizet
But the art and science of manipulating sound is
actually an old story, one that takes us back to pre-historic times.
Here, at the Arcy-sur-Cure caves in France,
are traces of human activity over 30,000 years old.
This is one of the most magical spaces I've ever been in.
I'm standing just inches away from one of the very first
traces of our desire to record our experiences.
Researchers now believe that these caves were not just
used by our ancestors to express themselves with their hands,
but also with their voices.
These incredible sounds are coming from Professor Iegor Reznikoff,
a specialist in the sonic acoustics of ancient spaces.
He believes it's no coincidence that
the wall paintings are located in specific areas.
It's a space for the eyes but it's a space also for ears.
The more you have echoes, the more you have paintings.
So the most acoustically interesting parts of the cave turn out to
-be populated by the most images.
So they would sit in this space, look at these images,
make these amazing reverberant sounds.
-It was like the IMAX theatre of the Palaeolithic era.
Can I try the chanting for a second?
Let me give it a shot, OK?
You be my instructor, I've never done this before.
-That sounded pretty good.
-I feel very manly when I do that.
Try to push it out.
Of course, Palaeolithic tribes couldn't record their own voices
the way they could capture their visual experiences in painting.
But by chanting and making animal sounds here, they were
experimenting with a very early form of sound engineering using
the natural acoustics of the cave to enhance and amplify the human voice.
But over the next 30,000 years, not much happened.
Sure, cave painting became Impressionism.
But even by the late 1800s, our best attempts to share
and amplify the sound of our voices basically amounted to...
-..shouting in big echo-y rooms!
But in the late 19th century, that was about to change.
Because an idea emerged that would transform everything,
from how we respond to emergencies to how we build our cities.
Thanks, in large part, to a failed invention from a forgotten
In the middle of the 19th century, there's a new technology that
has everyone excited.
It's a medium that allows us
to go beyond the painted impression of the world
and for the first time to capture a mirror image of our lives.
One instant convert to photography was a young,
would-be inventor called Edouard-Leon Scott de Martinville.
Scott saw how photography was able to freeze time,
to immortalize what we could see, and this got him thinking.
Scott is a printer by trade, so it's his job to reproduce
and share the written word.
He starts to wonder, what if there were a device that could
capture the spoken word?
A kind of camera for the ear and not the eye.
Scott writes, "Will one be able to preserve for future generations some
"features of the diction of those eminent actors, those grand artists
"who die without leaving behind them the faintest trace of their genius?"
To make this high-minded dream a reality, Scott has a brilliant idea.
Just as the camera creates images by mimicking the function
of the eye, Scott plans to build a device that mimics the human ear.
Recording the vibrations caused when sound waves reach our eardrum.
Today, the results are held in the Academy of Sciences, in Paris.
OK, so here's Scott's actual hand drawn design for a contraption
he calls the phonautograph.
It's basically a device for visualising sound.
You vocalize into a funnel with a thin membrane at the narrow end.
Sound vibrations trigger a needle that makes lines on paper
blackened with soot, wrapped around a spinning drum.
And this is the result.
Scott called it a phonautogram.
It's impossible for me to overstate the importance of this document,
because these squiggly lines represent the very first
For the 100,000 years since language developed, every word ever
spoken by anyone was immediately lost to the air.
But finally, thanks to Edouard-Leon Scott,
we had a way to immortalize the human voice.
It was an epic achievement.
So why has nobody heard of this guy?
Scott's design was missing one crucial feature -
Isn't that crazy?
I mean, it's a little bit like inventing the car
but forgetting to add the feature where the wheels turn.
'In 2008, audio historian David Giovannoni discovered
'a series of Scott's phonautograms in the Paris archives where
'they'd languished in obscurity for years.'
Why do you think that key final feature was missing from his plan?
Well, a couple of things here.
The phonautograph was ahead of its time.
I mean, way ahead of its time.
Scott's singular contribution to the science of acoustics was to
take sounds out of the air, write them on a piece of paper
automatically - the phonautograph. And he thought, "Well, now that
"I have a visual representation of the sound, if I could just learn to
"read these squiggles and interpret them and know what was said."
Did he try? Did he spend a lot of time trying to?
He did, and others did.
But he quickly found out that it was really hard to do.
Giovannoni and his colleagues created history by using new
software to translate the squiggles into audible sound.
For the first time ever,
Scott's recordings could be played back to the world.
Edouard-Leon Scott himself, the inventor, sitting in his room
in Paris, April 9th 1860, and he's turning the crank, he's singing
slowly, carefully, he's probably watching these squiggles being made.
These are humanity's first recordings of its own voice.
OK, so you've completely whetted my appetite here.
I want to hear the actual recording. Can we do that?
-Cool, let's hear it.
It sounds kind of like a horror movie soundtrack,
I have to say. I mean, appropriately, it sounds ghostly
and here we are, we're bringing this voice back from the dead.
He didn't send his voice a great distance,
but he was the first human being to send his voice into the future.
-Over time, not just distance, and that's the ghostly part.
Because once you've fixed the voice, it does become a ghost
and ghostly after the maker has gone.
Tragically, Edouard-Leon Scott could never convince
anyone of the importance of the phonautograph.
He even wrote a book advocating its merits, but no-one listened.
He lived out his years as a librarian and bookseller
and died receiving no acclaim for his remarkable invention.
As a commercial proposition, the phonautograph is a complete failure.
But Scott's device will ultimately
succeed as a kind of inspiration that spreads around the globe.
Because now, his invention is about to trigger changes in society
that go far beyond recorded sound.
The phonautograph has a ground-breaking legacy.
It was the vital trigger for not one,
but two inventions which transformed our lives.
In 1887, across the Atlantic, American Thomas Edison patents
the phonograph - a machine that allowed us to finally defy time.
Now we could not only capture the human voice,
but we could also play it back whenever we liked.
But the second invention is even bigger
and will completely revolutionise the way we communicate.
A man experimenting with Scott's phonautograph
discovers that the process of recording sound can be reversed
and that sound vibrations can be turned back
into their original state.
And so the human voice could be sent along a telegraph wire.
Alexander Graham Bell had just invented the telephone.
It catches on like wildfire.
By 1904, there are over 6,000 independent phone companies
in America and eight million kilometres of telephone wire
connecting us all.
It's hard to imagine it now, but just over a century ago,
the idea of our voice extending beyond the range of natural
earshot would have been almost unthinkable. I mean, think about it.
I'm here in London and just by dialling a few numbers
I can hear the voices of my family, an ocean away.
It's one of those miracles of everyday life that we're too
quick to take for granted.
But the telephone would do far more than just transform how we
talk to each other.
Within a few years of its invention, telephone switchboards create
a revolution in job opportunities for women.
The telephone collapses distances, emergency services can now
respond much faster to alarms raised by phone calls.
And as customers can now communicate easily with businesses many
kilometres away, the need for a shop front in every town becomes
Businesses begin to consolidate
and cluster in the booming cities, building upwards.
Now, you might think that the elevator was the key
technology in building skyscrapers, but you could make the argument that
the telephone was just as crucial in creating the modern city skyline.
The phone bridged great distances between us.
The next big challenge for sound was how to send the human voice
out to millions of people - all at the same time.
It would transform everything,
from popular culture to organised protest.
RADIO: 'Forecast is for sunny mild conditions.
'Afternoon temperatures 60s to low 70s.'
'KCBS News time, 9.28 first for traffic...'
This is KCBS, America's oldest broadcasting radio station,
based in San Francisco.
It's been hitting the airwaves for a century.
We're like a cat, we're in about our seventh life now, we've been
pronounced dead so many times we've forgotten how many times.
'I'm speaking to news anchor Stan Bunger, on air!'
So this is actually an historic radio station,
there's an important history to what happened here.
It happened really fast,
I mean, very shortly after they started these transmissions
in San Jose, they realised that lots of people were hearing it.
Within a seven-year period, 60% of the families in the United States
bought a radio set.
What do you think the cultural effects of that was of radio?
How did it change the country?
Well, think of it as the very first time in American history,
and really in world history, that that many people
could simultaneously experience something,
you know, a radio programme.
What's the effect of radio today?
We have all these different technologies now,
but radio continues to be a vital part of our culture.
The reality is more people in the United States still use
the radio every week than use the internet.
This gigantic cultural force of mass news and entertainment would
owe a great debt to one of the most error-prone inventors in history.
In 1900, Lee de Forest, a young, would-be inventor,
is broke and desperate to make his mark on the world.
He writes to his mother,
"The only footprints I will leave will be my inventions."
De Forest dreams of transmitting
and receiving the human voice, not with wires like the phone,
but invisibly, using electromagnetic radio waves.
The idea of radio communication has been around for a while,
but only very weak signals could be sent.
The lack of amplification was a massive problem.
In 1903, de Forest thinks that the solution to delivering
a powerful radio signal to millions of people can be
found by experimenting with gas and electricity.
After three years of frenzied activity,
he comes up with this strange object.
It's a gas-filled bulb with three electrodes designed to
amplify radio signals.
He calls it the Audion.
The initial tests of the Audion are very encouraging.
De Forest plans a grand public demonstration to
showcase his marvellous new invention.
On January 13th, 1910, at the New York Metropolitan Opera, de Forest
hooks up a telephone microphone to a transmitter on the roof.
To broadcast his beloved opera for the first time.
MUSIC: Habanera from Carmen by Bizet
Anticipating wonder from his audience,
de Forest invited hordes of reporters and VIPs to listen
to his radio receivers scattered all around the city.
WOMAN SINGS AN ARIA
De Forest imagines a wave of invisible notes
flying above the city.
He sees it as a triumphant moment in his career, calling himself
the Father of Radio, and he tells the New York Times,
"I look forward to the day when opera may be brought
"into every home."
But the thing is, no-one is impressed with the historic
Because, while de Forest has promised his listeners this...
SHE SINGS AN ARIA
What they actually heard was this...
MUFFLED AND DISTORTED MUSIC
The broadcast was a disaster, the press laughed at him
and later de Forest was even arrested for fraud,
accused of overselling the value of the Audion to his shareholders.
The truth is, the Audion just wasn't that good.
And it did amplify radio signals, but not nearly enough...
..to launch a broadcasting revolution.
In 1913, de Forest sells the Audion patent at a bargain price to
pay legal bills.
It's snapped up by the R&D Department at AT&T,
who discover something startling.
What they find is that de Forest had been flat out wrong about almost
everything he was inventing.
But lurking behind de Forest's
accumulation of errors, there was a beautiful idea waiting to emerge.
He was actually on to something with his three-electrode design,
but de Forest's big error was believing that
the gas inside the Audion could amplify a radio signal.
Over the next decade, researchers experimented with his basic design.
They took the gas out of the bulb,
and suddenly it worked a whole lot better.
That was the birth of the vacuum tube.
And now, a device conceived as a way to amplify sound,
by a man who didn't even understand how his creation worked, turns
into one of the most transformative inventions in history.
The vacuum tube could boost the electrical signal of any technology
that needed it, triggering an electronics revolution.
Radar, television, VCRs, sound recording, amplifiers, X-rays,
and microwave ovens all become commercially viable,
thanks to the vacuum tube.
But its first success comes in making Lee de Forest's dream
as the vacuum tube powers the transformation of radio
into a mass medium for popular entertainment.
The ability to broadcast inside people's homes captures
the country's imagination.
By 1936, three quarters of Americans consider owning a radio
a necessity, even in times of hardship.
Radio quickly becomes a vital source of news and information, but it
also creates a national passion for a new kind of music.
THEY PLAY: When The Saints Go Marching In
Originating in New Orleans, jazz had been around
since the turn of the 20th century.
And it was more than just music,
it was an African-American cultural movement.
Not that anyone in white America knew much about it,
because society was still heavily segregated.
And now, thanks to radio,
jazz can step out from the basement clubs and inner city ghettos
and reach America's white youth, who can't get enough.
As radio takes off, the intoxicating rhythms of jazz
become the most popular form of music on American radio.
MUSIC: Strange Fruit by Billie Holiday
The heady sound of jazz is unstoppable and the music becomes
a vehicle for African-Americans to share their experiences.
Songs such as Strange Fruit by Billie Holiday reflect
the terrifying realities of racism and segregation in America.
# Black bodies swinging In the southern breeze
# Strange fruit hanging From the poplar trees. #
Strange fruit was the first recording that really spoke
directly to the horrors of lynching and the abuses that
African-Americans were subject to at any time.
And so I think that kind of reality,
that stark reality for many white Americans who maybe had never seen
a lynching, maybe have heard faintly of it,
it forces them to look at America as it is.
Ray Briggs has studied the impact of jazz on American culture.
That song particularly became like a mirror, I think, for a lot of people.
This song actually speaks to my humanity
and I see these people as being human.
Maybe I've been wrong, maybe my parents were wrong,
maybe they haven't understood it in a way that I understand it?
So I do think that the technology allowing jazz to
be kind of disseminated more widely definitely made it accessible
to a lot of people.
They may not have gone to a political rally.
But they'll listen to a song.
And so when those artists who understand that power begin
to utilize it, they speak to, I think,
the power of technology and the power of music, that those
two things coming together are just beyond understanding.
That's a fascinating point in the sense that technology is
one of the first steps of integration, you're
bringing these voices and this culture into a white household.
The interesting thing about jazz, and any music for that matter,
that once it enters your space,
once it gets in your head, it becomes a part of you.
If you like it, then it becomes something that you value.
So then you think, "Well, this music then is made by these people,
"then maybe they have value."
Radio helped democratise America through entertainment.
Martin Luther King would later say that, "Much of the power of
"our freedom movement in the United States has come from this music."
What's also amazing about the vacuum tube is not only did it help
us share music, but it then revolutionized
the very sound of music itself.
What I really love about the vacuum tube is that it's such
a versatile device that even
when it malfunctioned, it still managed to change the world.
In 1960, a bassist discovered that a faulty amplifier could cause
distortion and create a whole new sound.
And so, thanks to the sonic properties of a broken vacuum
tube, discovered entirely by accident, by the mid 1960s,
the sound of popular music had gone from this...
CLEAR GUITAR MUSIC
DISTORTED GUITAR MUSIC
Distortion defined the sound of The Rolling Stones and Jimi Hendrix and
The Sex Pistols and Nirvana, and without broken vacuum tubes the last
half century of popular music would have sounded completely different.
Thanks to our growing mastery of sound,
life in the 20th century was getting a whole lot louder.
It was creating an offensive new phenomenon - noise pollution.
OK, so I'm here in New York City, it's still a very noisy place,
but imagine what it would have been like in the 1920s,
when amazingly enough, it was even louder than it is today.
So what are the sounds we would have heard?
We would have heard the sound of cars honking,
just the way we do today.
TAPE MACHINE PLAYS CAR SOUNDS
But on top of that we would have also heard
the sound of policemen directing traffic with their whistles,
and trams and horses, everywhere.
RECORDERS PLAY THE SOUNDS HE DESCRIBES
And you would have heard the elevated railway, which
was around us, making this huge noise constantly.
We would have heard the whistles from the steam boats in the river.
And of course this is the era of construction with the giant
skyscrapers and so there's people building these huge buildings.
And on top of that, the final straw for most New Yorkers,
the newfangled inventions of the gramophone and the loudspeaker
blaring from shop windows and people's apartments
throughout the day.
It would have been absolutely overwhelming.
A CACOPHONY OF SOUNDS
So, you can see why they called it the Roaring Twenties, right?
I mean, we'd created all these technologies to enhance
and broadcast the sounds we liked.
But we were starting to realise that we needed other technology to
measure, and even remove, unwanted sound.
And that's where this guy comes into the story, Harvey Fletcher.
Fletcher was a technical genius, a committed Mormon
and an all-round do-gooder who believed in using his skills
for the benefit of his fellow man.
He'd spent years developing ways of measuring sound intensity
and its effects on the human ear.
Now, Fletcher was part of a growing number of people who felt
that the noise of city life was just getting too overwhelming and that it
was causing high blood pressure and anxiety and decreased productivity.
And so, in 1929, he offers his services to the newly formed
Noise Abatement Commission.
This is an organisation that was
so serious about combating noise, that they actually held meetings to
measure and test the offensiveness of different kinds of car horns.
But Fletcher's grandest experiment was his decision to create
a kind of a roving noise laboratory.
A truck loaded with cameras
and state-of-the-art sound equipment that
drove around New York City's nosiest streets taking sound measurements.
The Noise Abatement Commission used Fletcher's newly invented
audiometer to measure the volume
and intensity of noise in New York City.
40, 41, 42. Parkinson, make it 42.
The noise in Times Square deprives us of 42% of our hearing.
Their pioneering work helped establish the decibel
as a unit of measurement.
I'm standing with sound historian
Emily Thompson on the corner of 34th Street and 6th Avenue,
once the noisiest place in the whole of New York City.
And this is one of the first times we've got
a unit of measure of some sort for just ambient noise.
We do. He considered this the first scientific investigation
of city noise. Now, the unit was a little fuzzy
actually, it wasn't standardised yet, it was very particular to
this machine. In fact, it was called the Noise Unit.
At what point do we start measuring in decibels?
The decibel is defined in 1929.
It kind of standardised the procedure,
standardised their equipment and came up with a unit that
represented the hugely varying energy difference
from the faintest barely perceptible sound, which is zero decibels, to the
point at which sound is really perceived more as pain than as sound.
And that's around 120, or 130 decibels.
We'll do a couple at this concert tonight.
So we're standing at 34th and 6th here,
what was the decibel reading have been like around 1930 for this spot?
According to the Noise Abatement Commission, the average value
here was approximately 74 decibels, and it got as high as 90.
90. OK. You know, it's funny.
I just happen to have here in my pocket a decibel reader.
-What a surprise.
-Yeah, it's weird. I just carry these around with me.
We're going to get a reading here, right now.
-That's interesting, it's, like, 64 or 65.
So, you think about it, you say the average in 1930 was 74,
going up to 90, so it's actually quieter now than it was in 1930.
So it must have been incredibly loud here.
I think so.
Thanks to Fletcher and the Noise Abatement Commission,
new codes and regulations are passed in New York City.
Whistle blowing traffic police are replaced by traffic lights.
The city begins handing out fines for playing
loudspeakers too noisily.
The elevated railway is sent underground.
And all across America, highways are soon built with walls
designed to shield out noise from nearby homes.
Modern offices are designed to absorb sound, minimise noise
and protect workers' health.
As sound-proofing becomes a new industry across the Western world.
HUM OF CONVERSATION
We've gotten better and better at reducing obtrusive noise,
but where do you go if you want to escape sound entirely?
Behind these two huge doors is an anechoic chamber,
one of the quietest places on the planet.
I'm going to go in here, shut these doors and, for the first time
in my life, experience total silence.
This chamber is an extreme example of sound proofing.
Anechoic chambers can reduce noise levels to minus 12 decibels.
Humans can't hear anything below zero decibels.
It is a really striking feeling. I mean, you know,
you feel almost like you've got a cold
and you're congested, just kind of losing parts of the hearing
spectrum that you normally take for granted.
Anechoic chambers are used to test hearing aids
and evaluate the sounds emitted from electrical appliances.
Chambers like these are also even used for astronaut training.
Hello, can you hear me?
I'm testing the acoustic properties of this space!
The sound of clapping is just completely dead.
After a while, the sound of complete silence becomes rather disturbing.
What it is, you're used to having sound waves
bombarding your ears all the time and when there's nothing
there it just feels like something is wrong.
Soon the only audible noises are the sound of your heart beat
The sensory deprivation inside an anechoic chamber
is so disconcerting that if left too long inside,
you might start to hallucinate.
Anybody want to let me out?
So it turns out that, far from banishing sound entirely,
we need some level of background noise to prevent us
from going completely crazy.
Of course, the sound you're most likely to hear on today's
city streets is someone talking too loudly into their cellphone.
I mean, if Edouard-Leon Scott could time travel to today,
he would be completely amazed. Not only can we record our voices,
but we can project them through space and have a private
conversation with someone on the other side of the planet.
So how did that come about?
In the early years of radio communication,
privacy simply didn't exist.
All frequencies were open,
so any transmission could easily be eavesdropped, recorded or jammed.
Up until World War II, opposing armies assumed someone was
always listening in.
But then, an innovation comes along that changes everything
and leads to one of the most important
technologies of the 21st century.
Only this innovation doesn't come from a corporate research lab
or some struggling entrepreneur in a garage somewhere.
It comes from a movie star.
Back in the 1940s, Hedy Lamarr was one of Hollywood's biggest stars,
described by the press as "the most beautiful woman in the world".
She starred in films with Clark Gable.
You are the first American I've ever met with a soul.
And played Delilah in Cecil B De Mille's Samson And Delilah,
the biggest grossing movie of 1949.
But Samson was ensnared by the seductive beauty of Delilah.
Daughter of hell.
His lust became a trap which led to his downfall and capture.
She was a screen goddess who landed all the top roles.
But the thing is,
Hedy Lamar's life outside the movies is stranger than fiction.
Born in Vienna, Lamarr established herself in 1930s European cinema
and married a wealthy armament manufacturer called Fritz Mandl.
In 1937, she dumped Mandl and fled to America to find stardom.
Lamarr signs a contract that brings her here,
to what was then MGM Studios.
It's a movie factory and it turns her into an icon.
She's a rich and famous movie star.
But despite all the success, Lamarr isn't happy.
Because, you see, Hedy Lamarr has brains to match her beauty.
She finds Hollywood dull and shallow.
She'd rather spend the night at home reading Scientific American
than going out to some glamorous party.
Lamarr even becomes an inventor to kill downtime on the set.
She comes up with innovations like a dissolving tablet that
turns into cola when placed in water.
But it's war, not boredom, that will spur Lamarr to change the world.
As World War II rages, the US Navy are struggling to effectively
use torpedoes against the Japanese fleet.
Radio guiding systems can only use a single frequency, which has no
privacy so it's easy to find, jam, and send the torpedo off course.
Lamarr decides to help the US Navy strike back.
Now, it might seem like a big leap from a Hollywood studio backlot
to military hardware, but it turns out, from her
marriage to the arms magnate, Lamarr actually knows a lot about
cutting-edge weapons research.
And she's got a brilliant idea.
It's a remote-controlled torpedo, operated from a plane overhead,
with, and here's the brilliant part, a frequency-hopping signal.
Her vision is for both the plane
and torpedo to synchronise continuous frequency changes,
so the enemy can't intercept and jam the radio signal.
But turning Lamarr's crazy idea into reality won't be easy.
And that's where this guy comes in - George Antheil, an eccentric
polymath who no Hollywood screenwriter could dream up.
Antheil had been a US weapons inspector during World War I
before becoming a renowned avant-garde composer.
He was known as the bad boy of music.
And just looking at these two smouldering faces, it wasn't
surprising they were going to cook up something remarkable together.
And so the glamorous movie star and the experimental musician,
one of the most unlikely duos in the history of technology,
put their heads together.
And they come up with this...
THE PIANO PLAYS ITSELF
OK, OK, so it's not an awesome death ray or something like that.
It's a player piano, it's actually an old piece of technology.
But what made it so interesting is the fact that it plays itself.
You see, every player piano has this kind of scrolling punch card inside
of it where these holes correspond to one of the 88 keys on the piano.
And as the paper scrolls along, the piano hops from note to note,
based on the information encoded in the paper.
Antheil had already toyed with player units in his experimental
music, making multiple pianos play exactly in sync.
His crazy idea is to use the same technique for
Lamarr's remote control torpedo.
Just as his pianos hopped between a keyboard's 88 notes to play
a tune, the transmitter aeroplane and the receiver torpedo
are programmed to make split-second synchronised hops
between 88 different radio frequencies.
It was a truly revolutionary idea, the enemy couldn't possibly
intercept a transmitted message being
spread across the frequency spectrum, which meant that no-one
could stop a remote control torpedo from hitting its target.
It's the first ever means of secure radio communications.
It sounded too good to be true,
and unfortunately that's exactly what the US Navy thought.
Lamarr and Antheil succeeded in getting a patent for their
invention, but it's dismissed by the military and never pursued.
But despite the fact Lamarr's guided missile scheme would never
see the light of day, the core idea behind it was destined
to have a major impact on how we live today.
Prompted by the prospect of all-out nuclear war
during the Cuban Missile Crisis,
the military dusts off Lamarr's proposal and develops it, not for
remote-controlling a torpedo, but to secure communications between ships.
It works, and it signals the start of a technological revolution.
By the 1980s, the technology is declassified,
forming the backbone to a new era in secure, wireless communication.
Enabling cellphone users to share frequencies and talk in private.
So, today, any time you make a cellphone call or send a text,
or an e-mail via Wi-Fi, it's partly thanks to an ingenious
idea from a Hollywood actress that helped launch a digital revolution.
From our earliest experiments with recording
and broadcasting human voices, the journey of sound has been
all about extending the range of our voices and ears.
But the most surprising twist of all would come nearly
a century ago, when we first began to realise that
sound could be harnessed for something else - to help us see.
It's 1912 and the world reacts in horror to the news that
the RMS Titanic had struck an iceberg and sunk,
taking over 1,500 people with it to a watery grave.
It's one of the deadliest peacetime maritime disasters in history.
Like millions of others,
the Canadian Reginald Fessenden is devastated by the loss of life.
But he's also an inventor, and obsessed with sound technology.
He resolves to try and prevent such a tragedy ever happening again,
using his knowledge of sound.
Fessenden already knows that sound travels very effectively
through water, so he's got this idea for a maritime technology
that could be used to detect icebergs.
And strangely enough, it's the exact same approach that evolution
came up with for a completely different species.
To understand how Fessenden's idea would work,
I've come to a dolphin aquarium in Northern California.
OK, I'm out here in the middle of the aquarium but you guys
aren't going to prank me and let the great white out are you?
-Cos that wouldn't be very...
-Not today, OK, good.
'Trainer Holley Muraco knows all about how dolphins use
'echolocation to navigate.'
Listen for a sound that's sort of like a zipper or a squeaky door.
-And that will be the sound...
-That will be the sound of echolocation.
-So they're sending out a sound wave through the water.
-And it's going to bounce off of me.
And then it's going to bounce back to their ear
and their brain will process that spatially.
-So they'll get a sense of weird guy in the pool over there.
Release the dolphins!
OK, listen now.
DOLPHINS CLICK AND SQUEAK
There's some echolocation.
Yeah, I heard that sound.
-I can totally hear it.
-Yeah, that was amazing.
There's nothing quite like it, it's hard to describe.
They have something we totally don't have.
Hello, a little wave?
Fessenden had no idea that dolphins can use sound echoes to
visualise both the size and distance of an object underwater.
This wouldn't be established until the 1950s.
Oh, he's hugging you now. You're getting a dolphin hug.
Humans have been interested in echoes
since they were chanting in caves tens of thousands of years ago.
But they'd never used echoes for complex navigation
and discovery the way dolphins naturally do.
But Reginald Fessenden is about to change all that.
Now, it might not look as aesthetically
pleasing as a dolphin, but this is what Fessenden cooks up.
It looks more like a giant metal detector.
An echo-ranging device he calls the Fessenden Oscillator
that can use sound to see objects in the water exactly as dolphins do.
The Oscillator was a brilliant idea. Well, actually, it was two
It can generate a pulse which travels through water
and then returns if it encounters an object,
detecting icebergs up to 3km away.
But, it's also a receiver converting in-coming vibrations
into sound - making it an underwater telegraph for communication.
It's a huge breakthrough and Fessenden is convinced it
will save countless lives, not just through detecting icebergs,
but also, with the outbreak of World War I,
by detecting German U-boats in the new reality of submarine warfare.
Unseen submarines are launching devastating attacks
on merchant vessels, threatening to cut off Britain's food supplies.
Fessenden's convinced his idea can contribute to the war effort.
You see, Fessenden is a Canadian and a subject of the British Empire,
and he's convinced his technology can help the Royal Navy.
Unfortunately, the American company that funds
and therefore owns his research doesn't share the same
allegiance to the Union Jack.
What they see in Fessenden's invention is a risky proposition.
But faced with the financial risk of developing two revolutionary
new technologies, the company decides to build
and market the Oscillator as a listening device only.
Beside himself with rage, Fessenden travels on his own dime all
the way to Portsmouth, England, to meet directly with the Royal Navy.
But there too, the top brass are dubious of this miracle invention.
Fessenden later wrote,
"I pleaded with them to just let us open the box and show them
"what the apparatus was like." But his pleading goes nowhere.
It was another decade before Fessenden's echolocation
invention was finally taken seriously.
It transforms maritime safety for ships navigating in waters
with treacherous ice floes.
By World War II, thousands of ships are equipped with sonar.
And it will quickly become a fixture of every vessel in every sea.
But soon, echo ranging doesn't just allow ships to see hazards,
it lets fishermen spot their catch.
It allows scientists to explore the last great
mysteries of our oceans, revealing hidden landscapes,
and resources, helping seismologists chart earthquake fault lines.
Sonar was even one of the technologies used to search for
the Titanic three-and-a-half kilometres below the surface,
73 years after it sank.
But Fessenden's innovation has had the most transformative
effect on our health.
Today, ultrasound technology allows babies and their mothers to survive
complications that would have been fatal just a few decades ago.
And we've actually kind of come full circle,
we're now using ultrasound on pregnant dolphins.
-So that's the...
-That's the heartbeat.
That's the heartbeat of the baby dolphin.
Do we know if it's a girl or a boy?
-I think I've seen maybe some boy parts.
So we're sort of thinking it's a boy.
She's not showing much. Looking good.
She looks really good. Being streamlined helps a lot.
So we're just bouncing our sound waves using our advanced
technology here. Somewhere in the dolphin womb there is a tiny
baby dolphin who may or may not be hearing our sound waves.
Kind of like, "What is that noise?
-"Why are people talking to me?"
That is really cool.
I remember my wife and I found out that our first child was
going to be a boy using an ultrasound.
If you think about it,
it's really incredible. I mean, this just about as important a piece
of information as you're ever going to receive in your life,
the sex of your unborn child.
And it comes to us by sending sound waves through
and listening to echoes off of the bones and tissue of our bodies.
In the 150 years since Edouard-Leon Scott first recorded his voice, the
journey of sound has been all about discovering ever more inventive
ways of sending it - be it over the airwaves or right inside our bodies.
You could argue that the most transformative part of that
journey was where it began - capturing the sound of our voices,
in song, and in conversation.
Sound recording gives us
the ability to revisit the most cherished memories in our lives.
I mean, I know I can't separate out my memories of adolescence
from the music that I listened to as a teenager.
And today, hearing one of those tracks can send me
back to the past in a heartbeat.
Sound recording becomes a part of who we are.
And that's why it's fitting, really, when we packed up the Voyager
spacecraft in 1977 to send into uncharted space
as a gift to unknown civilisations, one of the main objects we included
to represent all of humanity was a gold-plated phonograph disc.
Recorded on it were greetings in 55 different languages.
Just last year,
NASA announced that Voyager One had left the solar system.
It will be roughly 40,000 years before it encounters another
But when it does,
it will be carrying the sound of the human voice saying, "Hello."
The ability to transport our voices over long distances has been one of the greatest transformations in how we live our lives. Innovation expert Steven Johnson traces the unsung heroes of sound, like the printer in France who first recorded the human voice, the maverick inventor who made radio possible through a mistake and the Hollywood star who used the keys of the piano to inspire encrypted messages. Together they helped set off a chain reaction of innovations which have shaped the modern world.