The Age of Electroacoustics
At the end of the nineteenth century, acoustics was a science of musical sounds; the musically trained ear was the ultimate reference. Just a few decades into the twentieth century, acoustics had undergone a transformation from a scientific field based on the understanding of classical music to one guided by electrical engineering, with industrial and military applications. In this book, Roland Wittje traces this transition, from the late nineteenth-century work of Hermann Helmholtz to the militarized research of World War I and media technology in the 1930s.
Wittje shows that physics in the early twentieth century was not only about relativity and atomic structure but encompassed a range of experimental, applied, and industrial research fields. The emergence of technical acoustics and electroacoustics illustrates a scientific field at the intersection of science and technology. Wittje starts with Helmholtz’s and Rayleigh’s work and its intersection with telegraphy and early wireless, and continues with the industrialization of acoustics during World War I, when sound measurement was automated and electrical engineering and radio took over the concept of noise. Researchers no longer appealed to the musically trained ear to understand sound but to the thinking and practices of electrical engineering. Finally, Wittje covers the demilitarization of acoustics during the Weimar Republic and its remilitarization at the beginning of the Third Reich. He shows how technical acoustics fit well with the Nazi dismissal of pure science, representing everything that “German Physics” under National Socialism should be: experimental, applied, and relevant to the military.
About the Author
Roland Wittje is Associate Professor in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences at the Indian Institute of Technology Madras.
“This is history of science of the first order, a really fascinating and well-written book that maps the multiple geographies of electroacoustics in the interwar period. Wittje’s innovative conceptual framework links sound, space, and time to explore the transformation of physics in the interwar period.”
—Helmuth Trischler, Head of Research, Deutsches Museum, Munich; Professor of Modern History at LMU Munich
“In The Age of Electroacoustics, Roland Wittje charts the emergence of a ‘technical acoustics’ that understood sound through electrical instruments and electrical metaphors. Wittje follows the rise of electroacoustics through cultural, military, academic, and political histories. But he also challenges the divide between basic and applied science, so central to received histories of science, technology, media, and engineering. To understand the history of acoustics means we have to understand the history of physics—and of science—in a fresh, new way. Exhaustively researched, erudite, full of technical and historical detail, international in scope, and sensitive to political context, The Age of Electroacoustics offers a synthetic and wide-ranging history of a crucial turning point in the history of modern life.”
—Jonathan Sterne, Professor and James McGill Chair in Culture and Technology, McGill University; author of MP3: The Meaning of a Format and The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction
“It is a bold enterprise to proclaim the ‘age’ of something—but Roland Wittje’s study succeeds. The example of rethinking sound in terms of electricity-based technology demonstrates that so allegedly natural a part of our lives as sound and auditory perception undergo radical change when new technology becomes available. His rich narrative explains how the ‘conceptual redefinition of sound’ around 1900 interfered with science, politics, and economy. It will convince its readers to rethink our relation to technology in aural perception.”
—Julia Kursell, Professor of Musicology and Codirector of the Vossius Center for the History of Humanities and Sciences, University of Amsterdam