BBC Radio 4

    Noise: A Human History - Week 5

    Curator, British Library

    Cheryl Tipp, curator of natural sounds at the British Library, previews the fifth week of Noise: A Human History.

    Prof David Hendy

    The penultimate week of Noise: A Human History finds us stepping into the world of the Industrial Revolution.
    The proliferation of factories with their heavy machinery and blast furnaces and the emergence of the railway created an almost relentless bombardment of noise that had never before been encountered on such a scale. 

    Such was the overwhelming effect of this continuous sensory assault that silence became something of an oddity.

    Rather than seek quiet and solitude, it seemed as if people were trying to combat one form of noise with another, for example drowning out the constant drone of working factories with the bustle and energy of concert halls. They were losing the ability to appreciate quietness, being more comfortable with a constant background of sound, whatever the source.

    Some individuals became concerned about the physical and mental wellbeing of those living and working in such close quarters to these intrusive and unrelenting sounds. A Glaswegian doctor, Thomas Barr, wrote in 1886:

    "Confined by the walls of the boiler, the waves of sound are vastly intensified, and strike the tympanum with appalling force. If, in such circumstances, we venture into the interior of a boiler… we are conscious not merely of the sound waves, like blows, producing their terrible effects upon our ears, exciting therein sharp, painful, intolerable sensations, but our bodies seem to be enveloped in invisible and yet tangible waves which we actually feel striking against our heads and our hands…"

    These concerns were not a passing fad and have continued to occupy minds into the 21st Century.
    Noise pollution is becoming a frequent source of studies, projects and papers which try to address the question of just how unwanted noise is affecting our daily lives. These worries are not confined to humans either; there has been a steady increase in the number of studies looking at the impact of noise pollution on both terrestrial and marine wildlife. 

    Though industrialised society is a definite feature of human culture, methods are being developed to combat the unwanted acoustic by-products of these manufactured soundscapes, from intelligent urban planning to silent cars. A growing awareness of the need to 'get back to nature' is also gathering momentum and subconsciously takes us back to the very sounds that our earliest ancestors would have heard.


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