Old sounds not forgotten


Writing for Wired.com, Roberto Baldwin recently published the article, “Say Goodbye to the Tech Sounds You’ll Never Hear Again.” In it he highlights a number of once-common sounds that many of us will never hear again — and that many younger folks will have never heard in the first place.

In reading through his list, there are a couple of standouts. Given his selections, one can reasonably guess how old Baldwin is himself (i.e. few folks under 40 probably remember the sound made when blowing the dust of an NES game console cartridge).

Perhaps the best example in his list regards telephone technology. The days of the heavy black landline monster perched on a hall table or hung on the kitchen wall are drawing to a close. Like the call of the passenger pigeon, we’ll soon lose the collective memory of the dial tone. So too, will we lose the sound of slamming down a receiver. Not that this was ever a good idea, but most of us over a certain age can likely recall an angry moment where the phone (still the property of the phone company at that time) got subjected to whatever ire we couldn’t project onto the other end of the line.

It goes without saying that modern, relatively flimsy cellphones and cordless phones: a) lack a receiver to slam against the switch hook; b) would endure very few slammings into anything. One could putatively hurl a cellphone, but throwing a phone and slamming it are arguably qualitatively different acts. Both might be borne of frustration, but the old rotary could take it. A modern iPhone likely couldn’t. Certainly the one I sacrificed to the pavement gods of my local WalMart parking lot didn’t fare well (Note to Apple: I dropped it from less than two feet and it was in a case. Gorilla Glass, my foot…

Baldwin also discusses the looming silence of the keyboards. While most computer keyboards make some kind of noise when the keys are struck, their noise lacks the gravitas of a typewriter’s staccato crack. Sure the words may come out the same, but I have a hard time believing that Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer would have come out as gritty if he were first brought to life on a laptop.

To be sure, I’m no Luddite. Every single one of the million-plus words I’ve published has been written on an Apple computer. Then again, nobody makes movies from the stuff I write.

That said, I have a 1927 Woodstock Model 5N typewriter that I keep in my study. I bought it to celebrate having published a book chapter on Alger Hiss. Hiss, as some may recall, was the disgraced American diplomat accused of treason — acts that were allegedly committed with just such a machine.

Not only are typewriters a relegate of a bygone era, but so too are the forensic specialists who studied the subtle variations from one machine to the next. So good were these investigators they could read and discern between machines just as though they had fingerprints.

My old Woodstock serves as a reminder of that nexus between art and crime and culture. While my writer fantasy doesn’t allow me to hang over it with a bottle of cheap scotch and a smoldering nearby ashtray, I do from time to time take out a clean white sheet and tap those keys just to hear them sing.

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Matthew Pate is a former law enforcement executive who holds a doctorate in criminal justice from the University of Albany and who has advised police agencies around the country. He writes from Pine Bluff. Contact him at pate.matthew@gmail.com.