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Electrifying Voices: Technology and Public Speaking in the Early Twentieth-Century United States

Speaker: Dr Brenton J. Malin, Department of Communication, University of Pittsburgh, USA.
Date: Thursday 22 September 2016
Time: 6:00pm
Venue: Napier Building, Room 102, The University of Adelaide
RSVP: Jacquie Bennett (08) 8313 2421 jacquie.bennett@adelaide.edu.au. Attendance is free but prior registration is necessary.
Enquiries: Jacquie Bennett (08) 8313 2421 jacquie.bennett@adelaide.edu.au.

This paper explores how a series of technological developments in the early 20th century United States aided in the creation of a new model of public speech. While the emotionally dramatic and highly theatrical practice of elocution had dominated much of the 19th century, by the 1920s, a more restrained model of “public speaking” had replaced it. This period saw the “Pronunciphone” Company selling phonograph records that they claimed could teach the appropriate pronunciation of words alongside G. Oscar Russell’s x-ray studies of vowel formation in the human throat, and Carl Seashore’s phonophotographic images of (a scientifically defined) beautiful vocal performance. As these and other scientists and business people produced technologies to measure, manipulate, and improve the human voice, speech acquired a new technological aesthetic—which was demonstrated particular well by the speech of the radio announcer. Good speech was to be controlled, controlling, and efficient, much like the technologies through which it could be captured and broadcast. Looking at this history sheds an important light on a variety of ways in which technologies are used in speech, exposing the rhetorics of technology and emotion that underlie both past and present discourses of speech technologies.

Brenton J. Malin is an Associate Professor in the Department of Communication and Associate Director of the Humanities Center at the University of Pittsburgh, USA, where he researches and teaches courses in media history, theory, and criticism. He is the author of American Masculinity under Clinton: Popular Media and the Nineties “Crisis of Masculinity,” and Feeling Mediated: A History of Media Technology and Emotion in America. His essays have appeared in such journals as Media, Culture & Society, Technology & Culture, Communication Theory, Media History, New Media & Society, Journal of Social History, the Quarterly Journal of Speech, and the Journal of Communication Inquiry.


Image: Theodore Roosevelt, full-length portrait, standing, facing front, speaking at Carnegie Hall, 1912. © Library of Congress.