Looking at listening in Mormonism

11.27.2017 | Guest

Sharon J. Harris and Peter McMurray are here to tell us about the surprising connection between Mormonism and headphones. This guest post is a supplement to their full essay, “Sounding Mormonism,” from the Mormon Studies Review vol. 5 (2018). Volume 5 will be available tomorrow, but you can read Harris’s and McMurray’s essay right now. It is part of a fascinating forum on Mormonism as Media, edited by John Durham Peters and Benjamin Peters.
What does it mean to look at sound? Or more precisely, how do we experience images of devices and objects that we immediately understand as being profoundly sonic? In the latest Mormon Studies Review we wrote an essay called “Sounding Mormonism.” It anchors Mormonism’s sonic history in material objects, and for each sounding object we include an image. In some cases, like that of Joseph Smith’s seer stone, the object might imply a more obviously visual dimension than sonic one. (If it’s not immediately apparent why the seer stone is in fact a sonic object, you’ll have to check out our essay!) Each image presented its own difficulties, whether because of permissions (we would have loved to include an image of the iconic playbill/program from The Book of Mormon if Broadway had cooperated) or availability. The biggest challenge was the image of headphones, invented by Nathaniel Baldwin, a Mormon, in his Utah home in 1910. Finding contemporary images of the headphones took some sleuthing, but even the nomenclature for the object was tricky in this case: Baldwin’s company marketed them as “radio head-sets” rather than as headphones. And it’s not hard to find popular media articles online that tell of a longer history of headphones—depending how one defines the term and parameters. But even once we had agreed on the wording, the question of what images to include posed difficulties for us. We eventually tracked down a selection of images that we thought had relevance. We’re including them here with a very short description of what we found appealing about them in clarifying Baldwin’s project.1

1. Single-unit headphone

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Here we have a nice historical image (from 1924) of the classic “Type C” model headphones, but, it’s a single-unit headphone. This variant may have been the “Single C Unit with cord” listed on the back of a brochure featured in the YouTube video included below (shown at 1:04). It reads that the single unit “has lock washer and extra heavy diaphragm. Especially designed for loud speakers” and was sold for $6, half the price of the standard two-unit headphones. The two-unit “Type C” headphones, sold with two earpieces and a connecting headband, seem to have been more common, making this image all the more unusual.

2. Contemporary photo of Type C headphones

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Obviously this image is not historical, but it provides a clear example of the classic double headphones with the connecting headband. Baldwin was granted a patent for the “headband” (see image 5) that connects the earpieces. The torn fabric on the headband jacket shows the use and wear of these headphones, another example of visual details that point to experiencing sound. Nathaniel Baldwin’s name can be found with the identifying information about the model on the back of the earpiece or “earmuff,” a detail mentioned in the video below at 2:25.

3. (Type C?) headphones

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The next is another historical image (from 1921) taken from the negative. Despite the various weird shadows, these seem to be Type C headphones, but with one of the “earmuffs” removed, allowing us to see the next layer below. With the part removed this image changes our view of the headphones. Does defamiliarizing what we see in the headphones also distance us from their sound?

4. Non-Baldwin headphones

These are the clearest of the historical images (also from 1924), and they’re labeled in the archive as though they’re Baldwins. Zooming in, however, reveals that they were produced by Brandes, Inc., the Superior Matched Tone model, a slightly later model of headsets.

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5. Patent for Head-Band for Telephone-Receivers

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This patent, issued in 1915, shows one of the few constituent elements of Baldwin’s headset that reads immediately as “headphones” to a 21st-century audience. In many ways, such a component is secondary to the amplification device that makes up the headphones. But the headband allows for hands-free listening (as in Image 8), suggesting its importance for radio and many other applications. In his narrative accompanying the patent application, Baldwin writes, “The object of the present invention is to provide a simple headband which is somewhat automatic and can be adjusted easily and perfectly.” This patent application demonstrates how Baldwin was at the cutting edge of emerging radio technology. He applied for the patent in 1913, the same year that Edwin Armstrong developed a circuit that made long-range radio transmission of voice and music practical. The radio industry was emerging, and, whether Baldwin intended the head-band to assist with radio or other forms of transmission, he was preparing for technological innovations.

6. This Unboxing Video: “Baldwin Radio Headset Type C”

We finish headphone-focused images with this video from YouTube user AllAmericanFiveRadio of Type C Baldwin headphones and the packaging they came in, including the manuals and other textual information that came with it. This video brings together two common genres of YouTube: the “unboxing” video, where a user unpackages an item to show it in detail to viewers, and a vintage technology demonstration. For example, the brochure shown at 0:31, “General Information on Operation and Care of the Baldwin Receivers,” instructs users of the headphones, “The receiver must be kept away from dust or dirt. If a little steel shaving gets into the armature space in the coil it will cause a great deal of trouble. Even if the receiver is never opened it should be kept in a dust proof box or bag when not in use…. Never take a receiver off the headset and replace with another or send in one unit alone for repairs. These phones  are matched to each other very accurately at the factory and it is necessary to adjust the entire set when one unit needs repairing.” Besides detailing the necessary care of the headphones, in some places the brochure is chatty, remarking that the amount of dirt that can make its way into the receiver is “amazing” and describing to the production process at the factory a couple of times. YouTube user AllAmericanFiveRadio notes in the comments section, “The big selling point is the high volume these headsets produce.” This point also is emphasized in the brochure where it reads, “The Baldwin Type C Unit attached to a horn makes a very satisfactory loud speaker. It is equipped with a heavy diaphragm and tightly adjusted for this work.” From our vantage nearly one hundred years later, the brochure’s opening assertion seems prescient as it declares, “Given the proper care, these receivers will last and retain their remarkable characteristics for years.” Another (perhaps slightly later) brochure shown at 0:52 enumerates the unique design of Baldwin headphones: “One distinctive feature of Nathaniel Baldwin Radio Phones is the use of a sensitive mica diaphragm [shown at 1:39] instead of the heavier and less responsive metal diaphragm employed in most other receivers…. Another exclusive feature, and one which cannot be duplicated by others, is the distinctive circular magnet, whose overlapping ends, together with the two U-shaped pole pieces [visible starting at 2:50], give Nathaniel Baldwin Phones four points of magnetic contact in place of the usual two.” The imagery on the packaging is also striking, showcasing Nathaniel Baldwin’s signature on the box as his pronouncement that the headphones were “manufactured under my personal supervision” (0:12) and displaying a smiling globe (0:22), drawn with facial features and outfitted with a Baldwin headset (pictured at the end of this post). The picture proclaims that people are “listening in the world over,” pointing to the global reach of this technological advance. You can read more of this aspect of the headphones in the essay in MSR.

7. Labor

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Many of the workers in Baldwin’s factory had connections to the early FLDS movement, making it an important economic hub in that history. Here we see workers at a “clicker press” (or “punch press”) to punch holes in metal, with barrels set behind the machine to catch parts.2 As we observed in the Baldwin headphone brochures, the work at the factory was a conspicuous element of Baldwin final products.

8. Baldwin(?) at radio

This early image, dated from 1924, shows a man who is purported to be Baldwin himself (according to the photograph metadata, which is not always correct, as in Image 4) at a wireless radio. The subject of the photograph does bear a resemblance to some portrait-style photos of Nathaniel Baldwin. The patented headband and Baldwin headphones the man is wearing are plugged into the station and several additional headsets hang from hooks at the side of the desk.

9. Baldwin Radio Manufacturing Company

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This last image is of the Baldwin factory, located at 3474 S 2300 E, in the Millcreek area. This photo is said to be taken September 11, 1922, right around the time that orders for Baldwin headphones jumped to the tens of thousands or more. This photo, with a single car in the distance and no people visible, evokes a quiet setting, in contrast with the motion and mechanization of the clicker presses inside (image 7) and in contrast to the building’s present-day use as art studios, boutique shops, and a restaurant. But this quiet-seeming photo is the site where Baldwin developed and produced headphones for “listening in the world over” and all over the world.   NOTES 1. Our thanks goes to the Utah Historical Society, particularly McKayla Herron, for providing permissions for Images 1, 3, 4, 7-9 and Keith Greenhalgh for allowing us to use his photo for Image 2. 2. Special thanks to Daniel Theobald and Gael Ulrich for insight into the mechanics of this image.