Occasional posts on subjects including field recording, London history and literature, other websites worth looking at, articles in the press, and news of sound-related events.

13 August 2012

Rudyard Kipling and sonic warfare

SOME KIND OF sporting event in east London seems to have passed without incident. Among the many security measures put in place, including ground-to-air missile batteries and high-speed powerboats, was a sonic projector called the Long Range Acoustic Device, or LRAD for short.

The BBC had a report on it back in May. The LRAD can project a ‘piercing beam of sound’ in a directional way to control or disperse crowds, and it has the potential for use as a non-lethal weapon.

Interest in sonic weapons recurs every few years and there’s a boyish enthusiasm to it. Part of the appeal must lie in vague thoughts about building one of your very own. Here’s a Fortean Times piece on sonic weapons from 2001, and a more scholarly article from 1999 by Jurgen Altmann entitled Acoustic Weapons – A Prospective Assessment: Sources, Propagation and Effects of Strong Sound.

A smaller sonic weapon can be seen at the Customs & Excise HQ in Gravesend when they have their annual open day. It’s an ugly device with a pistol grip attached to a box bearing sixteen inch-wide speakers. It doesn’t look like it’s meant for self-defence either. Customs seized the sonic gun from some unnamed miscreant and it’s now displayed alongside many other intriguing contraband items.

A sonic weapon appears in Rudyard Kipling’s 1912 science fiction story As Easy As A.B.C. where it’s used to intimidate crowds. Kipling imagines a post-democratic future in which an organisation called the Aerial Board of Control rules the world with fleets of airships.

Dissidents in Illinois stage a rebellion to try and re-introduce democracy. The Aerial Board of Control send their airships to Chicago to quell the protests, which they do in a languid and disinterested way, reminiscent of the British imperial civil service which Kipling so admired. His choice of Chicago may be a reference to its powerful labour movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

The crowd’s chanting can be heard by the narrator from his perch in an airship as it floats over the city:

Once there was The People – Terror gave it birth;
Once there was The People, and it made a hell of earth!
Earth arose and crushed it. Listen, oh, ye slain!
Once there was The People – it shall never be again!

In response, the airships deliver a terrifying sound-and-light show:

‘They seem fond of that tune,’ said De Forest. ‘I should let ‘em have it, Arnott.’

‘Very good, sir,’ said Arnott, and felt his way to the Communicator keys.

No lights broke forth, but the hollow of the skies made herself the mouth for one note that touched the raw fibre of the brain. Men hear such sounds in delirium, advancing like tides from horizons beyond the ruled foreshores of space.

‘That’s our pitch-pipe,’ said Arnott. ‘We may be a bit ragged. I’ve never conducted two hundred and fifty performers before.’ He pulled out the couplers, and struck a full chord on the Service Communicators.

The beams of light leaped down again, and danced, solemnly and awfully, a stilt-dance, sweeping thirty or forty miles left and right at each stiff-legged kick, while the darkness delivered itself – there is no scale to measure against that utterance – of the tune to which they kept time. Certain notes – one learnt to expect them with terror – cut through one’s marrow, but, after three minutes, thought and emotion passed in indescribable agony.

We saw, we heard, but I think we were in some sort swooning. The two hundred and fifty beams shifted, re-formed, straddled and split, narrowed, widened, rippled in ribbons, broke into a thousand white-hot parallel lines, melted and revolved in interwoven rings like old-fashioned engine-turning, flung up to the zenith, made as if to descend and renew the torment, halted at the last instant, twizzled insanely round the horizon, and vanished, to bring back for the hundredth time darkness more shattering than their instantly renewed light over all Illinois. Then the tune and lights ceased together, and we heard one single devastating wail that shook all the horizon as a rubbed wet finger shakes the rim of a bowl.

‘Ah, that is my new siren,’ said Pirolo. ‘You can break an iceberg in half, if you find the proper pitch. They will whistle by squadrons now. It is the wind through pierced shutters in the bows.’

I had collapsed beside Dragomiroff, broken and snivelling feebly, because I had been delivered before my time to all the terrors of Judgment Day, and the Archangels of the Resurrection were hailing me naked across the Universe to the sound of the music of the spheres.

The final sentence draws an obvious parallel with the extremes of sound and silence described in the Book of Revelation, and perhaps also to the climax of Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius, first performed in 1900. Two years after the publication of As Easy As A.B.C. the First World War broke out, and with it the greatest intensities of man-made noise yet produced on Earth, among which Kipling’s son John died in 1915.