London Sounds, 1928


From the incredible London Sound Survey:

THERE ARE NO BBC radio recordings surviving from before 1931, so the job of representing the 1920s falls to this curiosity from the Columbia Graphophone Company. It’s a 12” 78rpm disc made in 1928 in association with the Daily Mail newspaper. It seems likely that the disc was somehow tied in with a Daily Mail campaign over urban traffic noise. The commentator on both sides of the disc is a man named Commander Daniel and he doesn’t approve of everything he hears in the city streets. The recordings were made from single, static locations in Leicester Square and Beauchamp Place on Tuesday 11th and Thursday 20th September respectively. Columbia probably used a recording van equipped with a disc-cutter.

The Leicester Square recording features hammering sounds from a building site, the repeated cry of Post! from a newspaper boy, the honking of car horns and the passing of horse-drawn and motor vehicles…

Commander Daniel warms to his task of identifying noise nuisances: “That was a large lorry with building materials, very noisy. There’s a motor bicycle without a proper silencer!”


Alexis Madrigal in the Atlantic on why no soundscapes recordings before the 1920s:

It wasn’t until the 1920s, Barton said, that microphones were developed. They could electronically amplify sounds and enabled the recording of soundscapes. From the very first, film could be used as a documentary device, easily recording ambient scenes. Sound recording, on the other hand, required performance for its first 50 years.

This timeline, when you match it up with other technological changes, has some very important consequences.

There will always be a large gap between our visual and audio historical records. Decades when we can see our places, but not hear them. We will never know what New York, Los Angeles, or any other city sounded like before the automobile hit the streets and electricity was commonplace.

Some things, like what it sounded like for a million Americans to live together without internal combustion engines on wheels, can be lost forever.

HT: Brian Dooley

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