What did it take to be heard in the House of Representatives? Acoustics were notoriously bad in the House Chamber in the early 20th century. Getting from “wait, what?” to “loud and clear” required three tries, ten trumpets, and a flying coffin.
A photograph of the House in the summer of 1922 shows a room blissfully unaware of the technology of microphones and loudspeakers. But in this pre-electronic Eden, most of the room was also unaware of what Members were saying. From the time the chamber opened 65 years earlier, rotten acoustics had plagued the proceedings. Representatives, reporters, and visitors complained, but no solution emerged. Until the advent of technology as the cure-all of the new century, that is.
In 1922, Representatives arrived for the third session of Congress and found themselves face to face with large circular microphones, or “buzz wheels” as Marvin Jones of Texas disdainfully described them. Ten trumpet-shaped loudspeakers bloomed from the ceiling in a photograph of the chamber. “I think they are a consummate nuisance,” concurred Walter Magee of New York as he stood in front of the microphone and thundered that he preferred “to hear the voice as nature created it, unfalsettoed by mechanical devices.” By 1924, low-tech forces outroared their foes, and the trumpets were lowered from the ceiling.
A decade later, the New Deal brought a wave of freshman Representatives, including a radio announcer from Nebraska, Karl Stefan. He came starry-eyed to his first Joint Meeting, and left it deflated that radio enabled “people miles away . . . to hear every word distinctly, while we who sat here in the presence of the President, hearing his voice, seeing him in person, were unable to hear what he said.” Stefan introduced a resolution to investigate and recommend amplification systems for the House Chamber “as promptly as practicable.”
Members who thought “we have got along pretty well for 150 years without having any of these new-fangled contrivances” denounced Stefan’s sound idea on the floor. His bill was sent to the Rules Committee and seemed to die there. But just a few months later, Members of Congress showed up to work one Monday to find the trumpets had returned to the ceiling of the House Chamber. As the mellow Southern accents of Speaker Joseph Byrns of Tennessee called the House to order, his voice became a roar. “Who,” asked leather-lunged Thomas Blanton of Tennessee, “put this monkey business in here?” His question, shouted over the new loudspeakers, was said to shake the chamber from top to bottom. Blanton demonstrated the system’s superfluity by stepping away from the microphone and holding forth for fifteen minutes in a voice that could be heard as far as the hallways. Other Representatives were unhappy to discover their side remarks picked up by the microphones and broadcast from the trumpets above them. Speaker Byrns agreed with his colleagues, and had “the thing” taken out immediately.
Four years later, Representatives craned their necks toward the ceiling on the first day of the 76th Congress and saw yet another new-fangled contraption. A photo from opening day shows the amplifiers, dubbed “the flying coffin” by House Members, sailing above the Representatives’ heads. This time, the Speaker of the House William Bankhead of Alabama put the full weight of his office behind the effort. Before the coffin soared aloft, Bankhead cautiously patted it for the cameras, certain it would work. Industry giant Bell Laboratories designed the sound system and undertook an elaborate study of the chamber. They concluded what any Representative could have told them—that “the highly reflecting marble walls and the shape of the auditorium” made hearing anything a maddening task. To deal with the severe feedback from ordinary sound systems, Bell developed a six-way directional microphone officially called the Western Electric 639B, but informally known as the “birdcage” microphone, beloved of 1940s crooners. Bankhead approved, and in late 1938 four birdcages were added to the marble rostrum and Members’ lecterns, and the flying coffin hoisted up to the glass ceiling.
This third attempt at making the House’s activities loud and clear was a signal success. Even the Senate briefly considered following suit before declining to update their technology. But in the House, Members were delighted (if a little surprised by the forbidding block of speakers dangling above them), and spectators and reporters were relieved.
Sources: 74th Congress, 1st sess., H. Res. 63; Augusta Chronicle, July 1, 1935; Baltimore Sun, June 25, 1935; Canton Repository, 30 October 1939; Congressional Record, 68th Cong., 7 February 1922; Congressional Record, 74th Cong., 1st sess., 1 January 1935; Daily Nonpareil, 69th Cong., 11 December 1924; Radio-craft magazine, October 1935; William C. Allen, History of the United States Capitol (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 2000); W.R. Harry, Six-Way Directional Microphone, vol.19 of Bell Laboratories Record (New York: Bell Telephone Laboratories, Inc., 1940):10—14.Follow @USHouseHistory