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

Part 2: Julia B. Rice vs. "Useless and Unnecessary Whistling"

In the last installment, we left Julia Rice's Manhattan mansion called “Villa Julia” semi-surrounded by angry, tooting tugboat captains. They didn't like the lobbying she had been doing for noise-limiting laws.

But Rice stuck to her plan of gathering evidence, both written and recorded, and playing her wax-cylinder recordings at public meetings in major cities, always at top volume. The tugboat captains’ counterattack only confirmed her claims that noise was out of control.

In time she roused Congress enough to pass a law authorizing the Inspector of Steamboats to enforce a whistle ban. At the city level, she succeeded cutting back the time during which church bells could summon the faithful on Sunday. "The majority of them are decidedly discordant,” she explained to reporters. In 1907 she took on the problem of children fighting and playing loud games just outside of hospitals and schools. Mark Twain agreed to serve as president of the society’s Children’s Auxiliary. The young members swore to hush up, at least near children’s hospitals.

Without action, Julia once said, the twentieth century would be the Age of Noise: hence the name of her group, the Society for the Suppression of Unnecessary Noise. After she retired from the field, city agencies made some additional headway but nobody could do much about the escalating noise from cars and trucks.

Her vast collection of ambient-noise recordings dropped out of sight sometime in the 1920s. If the wax cylinders of Julia Rice are ever located, they will be the earliest street recordings from New York. (On a side note, no verified recordings of Mark Twain's voice have survived either. But according to this website a professional actor by the name of William Gillette, who knew Twain well, once recorded an impersonation of Twain telling the Jumping Frog story. So that's close.)

If the Rice recordings ever turn up in a basement somewhere, they will give us new insight what life in New York was really like during this boisterous, optimistic pre-war era, what some observers called the Age of Energy.

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