Comments about technological history, system fractures, and human resilience from James R. Chiles, the author of Inviting Disaster: Lessons from the Edge of Technology (HarperBusiness 2001; paperback 2002) and The God Machine: From Boomerangs to Black Hawks, the Story of the Helicopter (Random House, 2007, paperback 2008)

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Julia Rice Takes on the World: Early Noise Fights in NYC

If you live in a big city and noise gets on your nerves, it might make you feel better to know that Julia Barnett Rice (1859-1929) was one of the first to make the issue into a social crusade.

In 1905 she was living on Manhattan’s 89th Street and Riverside Drive, the wife of corporate lawyer and investor Isaac Rice. That summer, she decided enough was enough.

Her chalet-style mansion called Villa Julia overlooked the Hudson River. Though upscale the neighborhood was noisy due to river traffic on the west and street traffic on the east. Isaac had the same horror of noise but rather than look outward, he turned inward. He had contractors build a soundproof room in the basement of their house where he could concentrate on his long-distance chess game. He often played opponents in Britain, exchanging moves by telegraph. Down below the street, whiling away the quiet and happy hours, he invented a strategy called the Rice Gambit. He generously sponsored chess tournaments as long as the chessmasters promised to begin each game with his gambit.

Julia could have spent a bit of the family fortune to sound-proof the entire mansion, or to relocate to a quiet stretch of the Upper Hudson, but instead took on noisemakers with zeal and persistence. These were not pushovers. Her first targets were tugboat and scow captains who worked the waterfronts of the Hudson River (then called the North River). About two in the morning, every morning, these officers summoned their crews from the taverns by laying on the steam whistles. To pass the time, the captains also sent friendly messages to each other via steam-whistle.

Rice needed evidence for people who didn't live near the river, so she hired Columbia University students to go out with portable graphophones and dictographs to vacuum up all available boat sounds along with the screech and thump of wheels on the elevated railway, the clack of sticks on picket fences, factory whistles, and the banging of carriage-wheel repair shops. She had the students sidle into saloons and nickelodeons to record drunken brawls ("the boisterous sports of hoodlums," she called it).

Her hard-working students logged 3,000 tugboat signals a day. But steam-powered tooting did not break any law. The river was a “free soundway” under federal and common law. Nor did the noises on land trigger legal crackdowns, no matter how obnoxious, like organ grinders who stood under one's window on Rivington and screeched out "Hear Me Norma" and "Silver Threads Among the Gold" a few hundred times a day. Remember: in the summer everybody had to keep their windows open ... no air conditioning!

So the good-hearted Julia wrote articles, visited schools and offices, harried politicians, and marshaled her six children to hand out pamphlets and mail thousands of letters. She had a platform to press her views, since the Rices owned the magazine Forum. She did generate so much publicity that angry tugboat captains began gathering on the Hudson River near her house in the middle of the night. They yanked on whistle lanyards and shone their spotlights into the windows of Villa Julia.

Did she succeed? Stay tuned for the conclusion!

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