Friday, June 18, 2010

Public address systems and the demise of theatrical gestures

On page 14 of his book Working the Room, Nick Morgan notes that:

“These gestures were important because of how speeches were delivered until the advent of radio and television in the mid-twentieth century. It’s important to remember that public speaking was a form of mass entertainment. Most speeches were delivered without amplification to audiences in large halls or outdoors. As a result, a style of speaking developed that involved grand rhetoric, big, dramatic gestures, and voice projection.”

In a blog post on June 8 Jim Anderson described how the introduction of public address systems early in the twentieth century led to the demise of wildly theatrical hand gestures. Once everyone in a large audience could hear clearly, there was no longer a necessity for gestures as a backup form of communication to those far away from the speaker.

Triode vacuum tubes (or thermionic valves) were patented in 1908. They were a key component for audio amplifiers. By 1922 there was a public address system in the US Capitol. A red-tinted photo of the control room is shown above, as is a pole-mounted horn loudspeaker from 1923.

A web page for the Museum of Public Address has many more photographs of early equipment. I was surprised to read that back on December 30, 1915 a Magnavox public address system was used at the Civic Auditorium in San Francisco for a remote wire broadcast by the California governor, Hiram Johnson. The governor had a severe cold, and spoke from his home. This predated commercial radio, which began in Pittsburgh on November 2, 1920 when KDKA broadcast election returns. Manufacture of radio receivers led to the mass production of loudspeakers.

In the late 1920s and early 1930s most movie theaters in the US were being equipped for sound films, and thus large amplifiers suitable for public address systems were mass produced.

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