“Can you hear me now?”

October 29, 2010


Image from Progresso ad

The recent series of TV ads for Progresso soup has got more of my attention than ad campaigns usually do. It isn’t the soup that interests me – although I like Progresso soup — especially wedding soup and escarole soup. No, it’s the gimmick that ties, as it were, the several ads together — the two-cans-and-a-string telephone.

When I was a kid, I loved to fool around with such a device. Anything that allowed one person to talk to another person over a distance was a source of fascination to me, and two cans and a string was in that genre. What I especially like about it — note the present tense — is that it is such simple and clear demonstration of the physical laws that make it work. In that regard, it is more elegant to me than the Blackberry now lying on my desk.


The Progresso ads, in some cases, ignore the principle at work, because they show the string hanging slack or turning corners. In neither case would the device work, of course, because the string must be tense and unencumbered so that the vibration of the bottom of one can — caused by the sound waves of a voice — can transfer to the string and create the identical vibration in the bottom of the can at the other end. I was reminded of the beauty of this technical achievement a decade or so ago when the boyfriend of one of my daughters was visiting our house and asked about the 1927 model Victrola that stood in a corner of our basement. His question was in the vein of, “What is that?” I opened the lid, put a shellac disk on the turntable, wound the spring and released the brake, and showed the young man how the sound was transfered in turn from the grooves of the record, onto the needle, up a metal wire, onto the isinglass membrane of the head, through the hollow tone arm, and through the amplifying horn out into the air. The postmodern lad was delighted to see what once was done without electricity, never mind electronics.

Corbis Images

I remember who showed me how to put two cans and a string to such remarkable use. It was Frank Brady, both a friend of our family and an employee in our family’s grocery store. I don’t know if my grandsons have yet been exposed to the deeply satisfying experience of stripping the paper labels off two cans, puncturing the centers of both bottoms, inserting and knotting both ends of the string, and then stretching the line and achieving the technical miracle of remote communication.

I hope not. I’d like to be the one to show them.