Thursday 30 April 2015

Fortean Times - May 2015 - Early Electronic Soundmaking (Trolling in the 1920s)

The BBC's anti-oscillation pamphlet
It's not generally known that early valve radios were capable of producing electronic tones through the overuse of the volume dial (or 'reaction' dial).  From the 1920s onwards, valve radios could be pushed into radio-frequency feedback states, and audible sinewave tones could be produced by heterodyning against a radio station's frequency.  Problematically, these tones re-radiated through the home radio's aerial, causing 'howling' interference in every other set in the surrounding area tuned to the same radio station.

Fortean Times #327
May's issue of Fortean Times #327 contains my article Rogue Oscillators - the fullest study yet published on radio oscillation.  Anybody interested in early electronic music is advised to peruse it!  Particularly interesting is the evidence that some people oscillated deliberately, and in the light of modern noisemaking culture - exampled by tomes such as Nic Collins' Handmade Electronic Music - it may be reappraised as a rustic, unrecognised form of rogue pre-electronic music performed by anonymous rascals.

To coincide with the article, here I present a slice of oscillation: Song of the R33 (based on a runaway airship that allegedly had its radio communications interfered with by people oscillating their radios).  The only sound sources are oscillating radio valves, and it gives a rather exaggerated flavour of the kind of sounds that polluted the airwaves of the 1920s and 30s.

Leon Theremin c.1927
An oscillating radio's pitch couldn't be really controlled accurately - the tuning dial wasn't delicate enough to produce true melodies (and nearby radios wouldn't necessarily hear the same pitch as the oscillating radio), but putting one's hand near the radio could slightly affect the tone's pitch too.  This effect was seized upon by Leon Theremin, who took the oscillation principle and upscaled the capacitive body effect to produce his hands-free electronic instrument, the Theremin.

So, if you want to read about this curious pre-history of the Theremin sound, check out this month's Fortean Times #327.

To end this blogpost here's a poem about oscillation from a magazine called The Ironmonger, Universal Engineer and Metal Trades' Advertiser from December 1924:

The Knob-Twiddler

This is the story of Plantagenet,
Who fiddled about with his wireless set;
He plugged in the coils and he turned all the knobs;
He twiddled about with the thingummybobs.
The one thing Plantagenet never would do,
Was to sit down and listen to gentlemen who
Were doing their best to divert and delight
This ineffably curious twiddlesome wight.
Each time he picked up a melodious air
He knew he could tune in much better elsewhere.
Reaction was tightened; then let loose again,
His aerial howls made the neighbours complain.
Whenever the set was performing its best,
Plantagenet thought he would try out a test:
And caterwauls, mingled with groans and with squeals,
Disturbed all his family and ruined his meals.
But was he depressed? Not a bit! He would sit
Picking up funny noises that learners transmit.
For hours he would sit there in rapture sublime,
With knobs and plug-in coils agog all the time:

Perhaps you have heard the unfortunate fate
Of that knob-turning fellow, Plantagenet (late).
One night he was seized by a transmission wave,
Which transported him rapidly, on past the grave,
Into the limbo where knob-twiddlers end -
The place from which night-oscillations ascend.

So all the good people who twiddle the knobs,
Who will mess about with the thingummybobs,
Whenever they hear diabolic howls -
Should remember the army of Radio Ghouls
All ready and anxious to clap down the lid
On all men who do what Plantagenet did.