In 1908, Santa Rosans flocked to see the first demonstration here of the latest technological marvel: Something they called “radio.” The representative from Marconi’s company wowed audiences for four nights talking about messages sent to/from ships at sea and between distant places, all communications in the precise stutter of Morse Code. (The demonstration was actually part of a con game; see here for details.)

What was demonstrated here was really known as “wireless telegraphy;” in that era, the transmission of voice (or music) was called “wireless telephony,” and it would still be two years before the first broadcasts could be heard anywhere in the Bay Area from pioneer station KQW in San Jose (although that signal probably didn’t reach as far as Sonoma County). Not until after WWI would the the first commercial radio stations in San Francisco begin operating. But even after there was something to hear other than dots and dashes, it was still difficult to listen to; radio was a headphones-only affair until the first electrical speakers appeared in the mid-1920s.

For the first twenty-five years of the Twentieth Century – and particularly the first decade – Santa Rosa was a pretty quiet place. Sounds were more occasional than constant, and rarely interruptive. Here there was no smokestack industry running heavy machines that gave cities of that time a constant low hum. The farm town grew slowly, so there was no ongoing racket of major new construction (except for the months after the 1906 quake).

The private sounds heard from houses were small and likely appealing; someone practicing piano or another musical instrument or singing. Aside from player pianos, recorded music was soft; the graphophone and phonograph of the day had wooden or metal speakers that could barely be heard in the next room.

Outside, there would have been dappled background sounds: The clop of horses and the chug of the occasional automobile, probably the crow of roosters because so many homes kept backyard chickens. Twice a day, everyone heard the garden water schedule whistles, and at night, most everyone would hear the low of cows in Noonan’s stockyard at the corner of College and Cleveland Avenues. There were sometimes fire bells heard clanging. In those first ten years of the century, people individually created little noise; many walked or glided silently on bicycles or rode the electric streetcars. There was civic pride in that most of the downtown streets had been recently paved with smooth, noise-muffling macadam (which makes the thumpity-thump around old Courthouse Square from those ersatz cobblestones all that more ridiculous).

In his landmark book on soundscapes, “The Tuning of the World,” R. Murray Schafer points out that ambient noise levels generally increase each year all over the world, no matter what the society or whether it’s urban or rural. There are no more quiet places; sound is now heavy and continuous, much of it the result of incessant aviation and road traffic. Another major factor was the invention of the radio loudspeaker. Now the little box that was never quiet could be heard everywhere, and soon was.

The crowds at that 1908 exhibition were promised wonderful things would result from the development of the “wireless,” and things wonderful surely came to pass, but at a price they could not have foreseen. Some twenty or more years later, there were probably Santa Rosa residents who were in that audience who now found themselves kept awake by dance music playing on a neighbor’s radio, as they wondered what happened to the peaceful little town they used to know.

Very Interesting Lecture and Exhibition at the Skating Rink Last Night

H. C. Robinson, representative of Marconi’s Wireless Telegraph exhibitions lectured in the Pavilion rink on Monday night to a very large and interested audience on the science and possibilities of wireless telegraphy, giving practical demonstrations of sending and receiving messages without wires, including several feats of ringing fire bells, lighting electric lights and operating danger signals through the mysterious agency of Hertzian waves.

It was perhaps the first working of wireless apparatus Santa Rosa people have ever had the opportunity of inspecting and having the various phenomenon explained by a man who evidently knows the science thoroughly.

The lecturer gave a complete history of the discovery of the wireless principle of transmitting signals through the air. He took it up from long before the time Dr. Hertz discovered his now historic “ether wave” until the present day, when it has become a part of the modern complex civilization, and has passed out of the stage of being a novelty and a curiosity. He told of what progress has been made in the past few years by Marconi and how necessary wireless telegraphy has become in war and peace. He said that nearly every warship and all the great navies is now equipped with wireless apparatus. He told of how the great liners on the ocean keep in touch with the entire world while passing from continent continent. Newspapers are printed on hundreds of the “greyhounds of the sea” daily, through the aid of wireless; ships report themselves hundreds of miles out at sea, passengers can communicate with their friends at home as easily as if they were on land and had the telegraph and telephone at their disposal.

It is now a common thing, said the lecturer, for news dispatches to be sent from ships, and he mentioned the fact that Secretary Taft received the news of his mother’s death by wireless while on board the steamer President Grant in the English Channel.

Not only is wireless used by ships at sea, but America and England are linked together by wireless, and it is only a matter of a short time when cables will be as much out of date as stagecoaches are now in the big cities. Even on the Pacific Coast the seaports, from San Diego to Alaska, are in constant touch with each other, and during the recent telegraph strike much news was transmitted by wireless.

Mr. Robinson went into the commercial possibilities of wireless and told how it would soon supplant the telegraph and cables. There is no doubt about its success, he said, both from a commercial standpoint and in every other way it has reached the stage, where it was recognized as the greatest discovery and invention combined in the present century.

Tonight, Wednesday and Thursday night similar electrician exhibitions will be given by Mr. Robinson. Admission is free.

– Press Democrat, June 16, 1908

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