Go back to article: ‘A Chamber of Noise Horrors’: sound, technology and the museum

The Age of Noise and the Anti-Noise League

The Science Museum’s 1935 temporary exhibition on Noise Abatement is an example of an exhibition which both foregrounded sound as a primary mode of engagement and which sought to shape a particular way of encountering sound. Noise loomed large in the early twentieth century. A technological revolution begun in the nineteenth century, progressing apace in the twentieth, was perceived to have fundamentally altered what the world sounded like. The buzz of telephones, gramophones and radios, the rumble of aeroplanes, trains and motorcars, and the mechanical thundering of the Great War, permeated cultural and social discourse, providing a reference point for those trying to make sense of the tumultuous transformations unfolding around them (Bijsterveld, 2008; Halliday, 2013). Newspaper correspondents and cultural commentators described this as the ‘age of noise’, indicating the significance they attributed to their changing sonic environment as a barometer of wider historical change (Mansell, 2017). Noise had a distinctly negative connotation in this context, encapsulating anxieties about living in a modern industrial society (Mansell, 2014). As this and the following section will make clear, the negativity with which noise was viewed came to be parcelled up with class as well as gendered notions of what acoustic civilization should sound like. Noise was held to be damaging primarily because it disrupted the capacity of professional, middle-class, men to exercise their intellectual leadership. ‘Noise’ in this context meant the technological sound worlds of mass society intruding into the quiet sanctum of the office or the suburban home or otherwise residing there as gendered ‘friction’, as in the illustration in Figure 1 which accompanied a 1935 advert for the Remington Noiseless Typewriter, showing the disturbance to the professional male office worker caused by his female typist.

Figure 1

Black and white cartoon showing a professional male worker grumpily complaining about the noise made by his female typist

Image featured in an advert for Remington Noiseless typewriter in The Daily Telegraph, 31 May 1935, p 21

Even professional acousticians such as G W C Kaye, who led a pioneering programme of acoustics research at the National Physical Laboratory in the 1930s (Goldsmith, 2012), defined noise not primarily as a scientific category (on which see Wittje, 2016), but as a social one, calling it ‘sound made by some one else’. He added that ‘a hearer of a particular sound called it a noise if he himself did not desire it, regardless of whether his neighbour did or did not similarly find it a nuisance’ (Anti-Noise League, 1935b, p 7). Kaye was himself particularly exercised by the poor etiquette of motorcar and motorbike drivers racing on city streets and sounding their horns unnecessarily, the subject of an audio-illustrated talk he gave on BBC Radio in 1935, which you can hear in the extract below.

Audio 1

G W C Kaye's audio-illustrated talk he gave on BBC Radio in 1935

For architectural acoustician Hope Bagenal, it was the ‘menace of the loudspeaker’ attached to the gramophone or wireless set that posed the greatest threat to auditory privacy in the ‘age of noise’. "Do you realise," he asked at a talk in the Science Museum lecture theatre in 1935, "that your neighbour may at any time put at the other side of your party wall an instrument capable, with suitable room resonance, of developing anything up to 85 or 90 decibels, nearly as much as a loud sports car or road drill, and capable of setting all thin walls and floors in vibration? And he may keep it on for hours" (Anti-Noise League, 1935b, p 23). Such was Bagenal’s antipathy to the wireless, and particularly to the ‘wireless fan’ thoughtlessly and noisily ‘seeking foreign stations with a powerful set at night’, he suggested that blocks of working-class flats (where appreciation of quietness was deficient) should have their sets controlled by a building attendant who would manage the volume and the times at which users could switch their sets on (Bagenal, 1938, p 17).

Growing concern about the auditory chaos of modern urban life led to the formation of organised noise abatement campaigns in several industrialised nations, including in Britain (Bijsterveld, 2008). The Anti-Noise League, whose logo appears in Figure 2, was formed in London in 1933 to act as a national focal point for noise abatement campaigning with a prominent doctor, Thomas Jeeves Horder (by this time sitting in the House of Lords as Lord Horder), at its helm. The sounds of new mass consumer technologies were the key targets of the League’s campaign to suppress ‘needless noise’. Motor traffic and domestic loudspeakers were frequent targets of its campaigning. At the time of the Noise Abatement Exhibition which the League staged at the Science Museum in 1935, its activities fell into two distinct areas. On the one hand, it sought to influence local and government policy relating to noise nuisance and planning against noise. On the other, the League sought to educate the public about the dangers of noise.

Figure 2

Black and white noise abatement society poster depicting a figure with fingers in ears surrounded by sources of noise with the slogan no needless noise

Logo of the Anti-Noise League as featured in Noise Abatement Exhibition: Science Museum, South Kensington, 31st May-30th June 1935 (London: Anti-Noise League, 1935), p 91

In both cases, the League’s case against noise pivoted on a medical argument that noise causes fatigue and mental illness thanks to the irregular vibrations that it brings to bear on the human body’s nervous system. In his contribution to the Anti-Noise League conference held to mark the end of the 1935 Noise Abatement Exhibition, Horder pitted the human mechanism against technology, insisting that ‘we have let our inventive faculty get ahead of the capacity of our anatomy and physiology (as expressed by the part of these which is most vital, namely, our nervous system) to stand up against the results of our ingenuity’ (Anti-Noise League, 1935b, p 44). In both its behind-the-scenes lobbying and in its public advocacy, noise was held by the Anti-Noise League to be a cause of ‘neurasthenia’, today a more-or-less discarded psychiatric category, but at the time a diagnosis much popularised not only by doctors but also by fiction and self-help writers as an illness affecting the ‘nerves’ of the cultivated classes (Mansell, 2014; Mansell, 2017). In his contribution to the 1935 exhibition handbook (Anti-Noise League, 1935a), Horder wrote that ‘Doctors are definitely convinced that noise wears down the human nervous system’; it ‘jars and fatigues, by constant tension, the nerves of the normal citizen’ (pp 1–2). Horder knew that in order to gain the support of government ministers he would have to convince them that noise-induced neurasthenia would affect even the ‘normal citizen’ but admitted elsewhere that it was really to the ‘intelligent section’ of society that his League appealed (Anti-Noise League, 1935b, p 43).

One does not have to read too far between the lines to find that 1930s anti-noise discourse contained as much distaste for social change as it did medical evidence. For those who did not understand the appeal of quiet, Horder suggested ‘a national park with cheap trains and buses to and fro, where these primitive and immature citizens may be let loose, to yell and make other noises to their hearts’ content’ (Anti-Noise League, 1935a, p 2). When Horder claimed that ‘our senses are essential to our sense’ (Anti-Noise League, 1935b, p 44) he meant that the quiet culture of middle-class self-formation, associated with the art gallery, the concert hall, and the suburban home, had to be protected from the potential of mass, popular culture – implicitly that of the working and lower classes – to overwhelm it with the noise of sports cars, gramophones and wireless sets. The Anti-Noise League thus promoted a way of hearing modern technological noise that cast it as uncivilized, selfish and inefficient, for it was said to waste the energy and working capacity of those who would otherwise lend society their intellectual labour.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/170704/003