“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.


"His Master's Voice," Francis Barraud, 1898

In a post on May 14, I mentioned a song written in 1920 by Harry Ruby and Bert Kalmar: “So Long, Oolong, (How Long Ya Gonna Be Gone?”) I didn’t mention that I happen to have a recording of that song, sung by Frank Crumit on the Columbia label. Crumit was a popular singer and radio personality who also wrote about 50 songs, including “Buckeye Battle Cry” which is played at Ohio State University football games.

Victrola, the Victor Talking Machine Co.

My recording of the Ruby-Kalmar song is a 78 rpm shellac disk. I could play it on the electric turntable that we use to listen to our 33 rpm LPs, but I don’t. I play it on our 1927 model wind-up Victrola. I have an odd assortment of records stored in the cabinet of that phonograph. Most of them are 10-inch disks, but there are a few of the 12-inch disks. Some of these are recorded on only one side – including a 12-inch Victor record of Giovanni Martinelli singing “Celeste Aida” from the Verdi opera. By the mid 1920s, Crumit was recording for Victor, so the recording I have has to date from before that. The Martinelli recording was made at the Victor studios in Camden on Nov. 25, 1914. I was able to determine that at THIS LINK, which is a complete catalog of Victor recordings. An interesting detail is that the Martinelli recording – one side only – sold for $1.50 and the Crumit record sold for a buck.

45 rpm record

I got on this subject because of a story I read today HERE, on the Boston Globe web site.  The nut of this story by Sarah Rodman is as follows:

As consumers buy fewer and fewer CDs, an interesting phenomenon is occurring — artists who appeal to older listeners are showing up surprisingly high on the charts.

The reason: Adults are largely the ones buying CDs these days. Younger people tend to download in general and focus on singles.

The story makes it clear that while this isn’t universally true, it’s a clear trend. It’s also interesting to note that “surprisingly high on the charts” is a relative concept. Rodman points out that a reissue of a Rolling Stones album recently hit the charts in second place on the strength of about 76,000 sales. In the “early 2000s,” the writer explains, a recording had to achieve six figures just to be in the Top 10. The early 2000s are already “the old days.”


The acts the story cites as appealing to “older listeners” are an eclectic group that includes Sarah McLachlan, Sade, Barbra Streisand, Michael Buble, and Susan Boyle.

There is a lot of discussion about the changes that have taken place in the recording industry. Like some other fields affected by rapidly evolving digital technology, this one presents a variety of challenges to everyone involved. And the challenged include people like me, who have lived through all of the developments in recording except wax cylinders — and who have accumulated evidence of every stage.

Besides the heavy shellac records and the acoustic talking machine, we have boxes of 45 rpm records in the garage — including a duet by Connie Francis and Marvin Rainwater — hundreds of LPs in the living room — dozens of cassette tapes (and several cassette players, including the one in my Beetle), CDs all over the house, and a couple of MP3 players. The only stage we skipped was 8-track.


There’s an episode of “Seinfeld” in which George Costanza, having seen “Les Miserables” on Broadway, can’t get the song “Master of the House” out of his head. We’ve all had a similar experience, and it can be annoying. I read a book by the neurologist Dr. Oliver Sacks in which he discusses the possible causes of this phenomenon. Pay attention. I think the next step in sound technology will be a chip implanted in the listener’s head and songs transmitted directly into the brain.

Meanwhile, is  there a market for all these jewel cases?