Bell Labs, de Forest and SONAR

Bell Labs, the “idea factory,” was a result of anti trust law. Between 1930-84, all phone calls went through AT&T. They convinced the government a monopoly was necessary. So, the government made a deal with AT&T to make its patents/ideas public in return. Thus, Bell Labs’ inventions were open to everyone.

In 1910, inventor Lee de Forest tried amplifying radio signals to transmit human voice. This was a successor of the morse code telegraph invented by Marconi. Bell Labs’ engineers built on this to invent radio broadcasting.

While de Forest hoped radio broadcasting would spread classical music, it was jazz that actually broke through. Jazz sounds were better suited for primitive radios. Thus, the radio was monumental in bringing African-American culture into the white American living room.

Amplifiers followed. Then, “distortion” led by guitarists Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin. And, alongside, in World War II, a device called SONAR began being used in World War II to detect submarines. This was thanks to a Canadian scientist who was intrigued by the challenge of preventing sea crashes like the titanic by bouncing sound waves off objects in the sea. Thanks to sonar, ultrasound followed.

(The story of sound continued from last week)

Amplifiers freed us from any constraints that we had artificially solved via operas and cathedrals. Adolf Hitler was one of the first exponents of this. But, it also made Martin Luther King’s speeches possible. Similarly, SONAR’s most powerful use was ultrasound which helped countless mothers during their pregnancy. But, it also led to massive female infanticide in Asia. Technology has always been a double edged sword.  | Steven Johnson (paraphrased)


Source and thanks to: How we got to now by Steven Johnson

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