Sound and Safe: A History of Listening Behind the Wheel
Format: PDF / Kindle (mobi) / ePub
Do you enjoy listening to music while driving? Do you find radio traffic information indispensable? Do you like to sing along with whatever you like as you drive?
This book tells the fascinating story of how, over the course of the twentieth century, we turned automobiles from intentionally noisy contraptions into spheres of auditory privacy that make us feel sound and safe. It explains how engineers in the automotive industry found pride in making car engines quieter once they realized that noise stood for inefficiency. And, after the automobile had become a closed vehicle, it follows them as they struggled against sounds audible within the car. The book also traces how noise is linked both to fears - fears of noise-induced fatigue, fears about the danger of the car radio and drivers' attention spans - and to wants, exploring how drivers at one point actually desired to listen to their cars' engines in order to diagnose mechanical problems and how they now appreciate radio traffic information. And it suggests that their disdain for the ever-expanding number of roadside noise barriers made them long for new forms of in-car audio entertainment.
This book also allows you to peep behind the scenes of international standardization committees and automotive test benches. What did and does the automotive industry do to secure the sounds characteristic for their brands? Drawing on archives, interviews, beautiful historical automotive ads, and writing from cultural history, science and technology studies, sound and sensory studies, this book unveils the hidden history of an everyday phenomenon. It is about the sounds of car engines, tires, wipers, blinkers, warning signals, in-car audio systems and, ultimately, about how we became used to listening while driving.
cited by Kagan 1937: 14). It nicely captures the complexities embedded in the symbolism of the senses and the social hierarchies connected to this symbolism. We have already explained that until about 1900 loud sound possessed a rather straightforward connotation of power, both within and beyond the engineering community. For twentieth-century mechanical and automotive engineers, however, the loud sounds generated by machines gradually came to be seen as the by-product of energy-absorbing
and radio enabled drivers to withdraw from the world and be connected to whatever they liked (von Laffert 1931). And once the driver knew how to find the stations, another journalist noted, tuning into them required “no more attention than lighting a cigarette.”23 In 1948, the anonymous 15. PCA, File 811.215, Product Documentatie Autoradio’s, “Storingen, veroorzaakt door ontladingen van statische electriciteit in de wielen,” 1937: 7. 16. PCA, File 811.215, 1933 ff., “Philips Auto Radio: Geeft
Today, as British radio disk jockey Tony Blackburn explains in The Secret Life of the Motorway, there are “two places where you have a really intimate relation with the listener. First of all there is that relationship with the listener who is in the car, because there is a captive audience. The second one is anybody in prison!”26 The radio man flashes a joking smile after this remark. Yet what he says is fully in line with the idea of car radio as mood regulator, magic carpet, and music groove
and auditory features, for acoustic cocooning, for feeling sound and safe. And by now we also know that the automotive industry’s search for the sounds that best capture the identity of their makes, as well as the strategies they developed to get there, can only be understood if we acknowledge that the 1990s were the age of belief in the experience society and in emotional capitalism, of increasing standardization, and of a newly emerging tradition of testability.  Bijsterveld_Book.indd
but also convenient silence. By this we mean that they hoped to create cars that were both less prone to mechanical fatigue and would cause less nervous fatigue in drivers. It was in the interwar years that physicians and psychologists began to consider noise as potentially impeding the productivity of urban white-collar workers. In the same vein, automotive noise was seen as an exhausting force that might easily sap the energy and vigilance of drivers. As to the car body, this meant that