Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Thaddeus Cahill's chair-mounted headphones

Bring on the Noise

• July 02, 2012 • 4:00 AM

BEFORE BEATS BY DR. DRE, before the iPod’s earbuds, before even the Sony Walkman’s headphones, there was Thaddeus Cahill’s chair-mounted device for “individual-ear reproduction” of recorded sound.

With radio becoming ever more popular, the New York City-based inventor thought people should be able to listen without disturbing others. He applied for a patent in 1931, catching the attention of Everyday Science and Mechanics magazine. (Published by radio pioneer and futurist Hugo Gernsback.)

Personal listening devices have actually been around as long as radio itself. Radio technology was often called a “wireless telephone” in the 1910s because it was used mainly for point-to-point communication. The adoption in the late 1920s of the Audion tube, which greatly amplified radio signals, made radio into an experience the family could enjoy together. By the 1930s radio had become primarily a communal experience. Cahill’s most radical improvement wasn’t the way that his device surrounded the ears, but the volume he was able to achieve by using electrically powered speakers. But he never got a chance to find out if there was a market for his auscultatory accessory. He died in 1934—a year before the patent was granted.

Matt Novak
Matt Novak writes about past visions of the future for BBC.com and Smithsonian.com.

More From Matt Novak

Tags: ,

If you would like to comment on this post, or anything else on Pacific Standard, visit our Facebook or Google+ page, or send us a message on Twitter. You can also follow our regular updates and other stories on both LinkedIn and Tumblr.

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Follow us


Subscribe Now

Quick Studies

In Battle Against Climate Change, Cities Are Left All Alone

Cities must play a critical role in shifting the world to a fossil fuel-free future. So why won't anybody help them?

When a Romance Is Threatened, People Rebound With God

And when they feel God might reject them, they buddy up to their partner.

How Can We Protect Open Ocean That Does Not Yet Exist?

As global warming melts ice and ushers in a wave of commercial activity in the Arctic, scientists are thinking about how to protect environments of the future.

What Kind of Beat Makes You Want to Groove?

The science behind the rhythms that get you on the dance floor.

Pollution’s Racial Divides

When it comes to the injustice of air pollution, the divide between blacks and whites is greater than the gap between the rich and the poor.

The Big One

One state—Pennsylvania—logs 52 percent of all sales, shipments, and receipts for the chocolate manufacturing industry. March/April 2014