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Early-twentieth-century poet G. K. Chesterton once said: “The moment in history when we had nothing important left to say was marked by the invention of the loudspeaker.” The device makes it possible to listen to a Wagner opera-or any other “unimportant” stuff-while taking a bath, riding the subway or hiking in the forest. We can hear the electronically preserved voices of people long dead, as well as a universe of sounds unlike anything in nature. In a movie theater, loudspeakers surround us with sound and transport us into illusion. From Hitler to Hendrix, the century’s charismatic figures have reached the public through speakers.

Since the loudspeaker came on the scene around 1915, there’s been a constant quest to perfect the illusion. Now that audio recording and storage technologies are so good, loudspeakers are “easily the weakest link in the home audio system,” says William R. Short, Bose fellow at Bose Corp. in Framingham, Mass., and co-inventor of Bose’s Acoustic Wave system. “No way am I going to sit in my living room and imagine that I’m actually in Symphony Hall. It just doesn’t happen, and we really don’t know why yet.”

Contribution to the lexicon: “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!”

Touch-Tone Telephone

AT&T introduced “Touch-Tone” push-button phone dialing service in November 1963. By all accounts, practically everyone who tried it liked it better than rotary dialing. Bell Labs researchers went to great lengths to make sure people would accept the new interface: They tested 16 different arrangements of buttons, including crosses and circular patterns. They also considered sizes, shapes and spacing of buttons, springiness when pushed, and even the contour of the surface under the fingertips.

Cutting phone dialing time in half is nice, but from the beginning the intention was to transform the telephone into a remote data entry device-a capability that expanded with the introduction of the “*” and “#” keys in 1968. Though some of the services originally envisioned, such as using a telephone to turn on home appliances, have yet to materialize, the Touch-Tone phone has made possible phone trees, voice mail and a host of other services. Of course, sometimes the best way to get service is still to pretend you have a rotary phone and just stay on the line.

Contribution to the lexicon: “Press 1 for…”


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