Morning name: bullhorn

Yesterday’s morning name, a word that evokes for me a piece of electronic technology for amplifying the human voice, like a megaphone but with a lot more power built into it. An example, with a pistol handgrip for turning it on and off:


The older non-electronic object, which I refer to simply as a megaphone, deployed by a German lifeguard in 1969 and by a swimmer in an Archie comic from 1967:



The device in #2 and #3 obviously came first (though it seems not to be especially old), since it was, as I can attest from personal experience, around for some time before devices like #1 appeared, because the electronic devices weren’t possible before the invention of the transistor.

The term megaphone. From OED3 (June 2001) on the word:

Etymology: Formed within English, by compounding. Etymons: mega– comb. form [‘large, great]’, -phone comb. form [‘sound, voice’]. Compare earlier microphone

1. A device to aid hearing, consisting of two funnel-shaped receivers (‘listening funnels’) which collect sound waves and are connected to the ear by flexible tubes. Now hist. The device was invented by Thomas Edison, and included also a ‘speaking funnel’ that served as a megaphone in the subsequent sense

1878 Sci. Amer. 39 111/3   Now, at last, we have a megaphone, which is to the ear almost what the telescope is to the eye.

1879 G. B. Prescott Speaking Telephone 561   One of the most interesting experiments made by Mr. that of conversing through a distance of one and a half to two miles, with..a few paper funnels. These funnels constitute the megaphone.

2. a. A funnel-shaped instrument that is spoken into at the smaller end to make the voice carry further. Also: a device of similar shape used to direct and amplify sound for recording.

1896   Boston Jrnl. 5 Nov. 6/4   The Society for the Suppression of Needless Noise should regulate the use of the megaphone. [and later cites]

b. fig.

1909   Daily Chron. 7 June 5/1   They felt sure that the British Press were not the paid megaphones of financial buccaneers. [and later cites]

[note: megaphone, denoting a means of communication, has of course been verbed. In OED3:

1. a. trans. To communicate with by megaphone. rare. [one cite 1901]
b. intr. To communicate to by megaphone. [first cite 1912]
2. trans. To utter or convey (as) through a megaphone. [first cite 1920] ]

The devices. Some background from the Wikipedia article about speaking-trumpets:

A megaphone, speaking-trumpet, bullhorn, or loud hailer is a portable, usually hand-held, cone-shaped acoustic horn used to amplify a person’s voice or other sounds and direct it in a given direction. The sound is introduced into the narrow end of the megaphone, by holding it up to the face and speaking into it, and the sound waves radiate out the wide end. The megaphone increases the volume of sound by increasing the acoustic impedance seen by the vocal cords, matching the impedance of the vocal cords to the air, so that more sound power is radiated. It also serves to direct the sound waves in the direction the horn is pointing. It somewhat distorts the sound of the voice because the frequency response of the megaphone is greater at higher sound frequencies.

Since the 1960s the voice-powered acoustic megaphone described above has been replaced by the electric megaphone, which uses electric power to amplify the voice.

Note the terminology here. Initially, there were acoustic devices, speaking-trumpets, variously referred to by this name or as megaphones, bullhorns, or loud hailers. Wikipedia chooses megaphone as the neutral term, though as we’ll see eventually, such devices were in use well before Edison, going back at least to the 17th century. In any case, Wikipedia distinguishes acoustic megaphones (which were for some time the only megaphones there were) and electric megaphonesacoustic megaphone is then a retronym, an expression that came into use only once there were electr(on)ic devices of similar function).

The term bullhorn (or bull horn or bull-horn) appears in OED2 under bull ‘male bovine’, glossed as ‘a megaphone’, where megaphone is to be taken in a wide sense, as you can see from the earliest cites:

1955   ‘C. S. Forester’ Good Shepherd ii. 38   Her captain shouting himself hoarse through his bull-horn at the laggards. [the reference is to the acoustic device]

1959   Ottawa Citizen 24 Sept. 48/6   Mr. Garst tried to explain something to reporters through an electric bull-horn. [explicitly the electr(on)ic devce]

The occurrence of bull in bullhorn is presumably an allusion to the power of the creatures, though none of the sources I’ve seen makes that clear. In any case, bullhorn quickly became specialized to reference to electric megaphones. A sampling of current dictionaries:

NOAD2: N. Amer. an electronic device for amplifying the sound of the voice so it can be heard at a distance.

Random House Dictionary (2016): a directional, high-powered, electrical loudspeaker or megaphone.

Collins English Dictionary: (US & Canadian) a portable loudspeaker having a built-in amplifier and microphone Also called (in Britain and certain other countries) loud-hailer

Merriam-Webster Online: an electrical device that is used for making your voice much louder so that you can be heard over a large distance; a loudspeaker on a naval ship, a handheld combined microphone and loudspeaker.

AHD5: A portable device consisting of a microphone attached to a loudspeaker, used especially to amplify the voice.

In this context, megaphone will ordinarily be understood to refer to a purely acoustic device.

More history. From the Wikipedia article:

The initial inventor of the speaking trumpet is a subject of historical controversy; both Samuel Morland and Athanasius Kircher invented megaphones around the same time in the 17th century. Morland, in a work published in 1655, wrote about his experimentation with different horns. His largest megaphone consisted of over 20 feet of copper tube and could reportedly project a person’s voice a mile and a half.

Twenty years earlier, Kircher described a device that could be used as both as both a megaphone and for “overhearing” people speaking outside a house. His coiled horn would be mounted into the side of a building, with a narrow end inside that could be either spoken into or listened to, and the wide mouth projecting through the outside wall.

Morland favored a straight, tube-shaped speaking device. Kircher’s horn, on the other hand, utilized a “cochleate” design, where the horn was twisted and coiled to make it more compact.

The term ‘megaphone’ was first associated with Thomas Edison’s instrument 200 years later. In 1878, Edison developed a device similar to the speaking trumpet in hopes of benefiting the deaf and hard of hearing. His variation included three separate funnels lined up in a row. The two outer funnels, which were six feet and eight inches long, were made of paper and connected to a tube inserted in each ear. The middle funnel was similar to Morland’s speaking trumpet, but had a larger slot to insert a user’s mouth.

With Edison’s megaphone, a low whisper could be heard a thousand feet away, while a normal tone of voice could be heard roughly two miles away. On the listening end, the receiver could hear a low whisper at a thousand feet away. However the apparatus was much too large to be portable, limiting its use. George Prescott wrote: “The principal drawback at present is the large size of the apparatus.”

Since the 1960s acoustic megaphones have generally been replaced by electric versions (below), although the cheap, light, rugged acoustic megaphone is still used in a few venues, like cheering at sporting events, cheerleading, and by lifeguards at pools and beaches where the moisture could damage the electronics of electric megaphones. [In fact, bullhorns are now quite common in lifeguard use.]

An electric megaphone is a handheld public address system, an electronic device that amplifies the human voice like an acoustic megaphone, using electric power. It consists of a microphone to convert sound waves into an electrical audio signal, an amplifier powered by a battery to increase the power of the audio signal, and a loudspeaker to convert the audio signal to sound waves again. Although slightly heavier than acoustic megaphones, electric megaphones can amplify the voice to a higher level, to over 90 dB. They have replaced acoustic megaphones in most applications, and are generally used to address congregations of people wherever stationary public address systems are not available; at outdoor sporting events, movie sets, political rallies, and street demonstrations.

Although electronic public address systems have existed since vacuum tube amplifiers were developed in the early 1920s, vacuum tube versions were too heavy to be portable. Practical portable electric megaphones had to await the development of microelectronics which followed the invention of the transistor in 1947. In 1954, TOA Corporation developed the EM-202, the world’s first transistorized megaphone.

Handheld versions are shaped generally like the old acoustic megaphone, with a microphone at one end and a horn speaker at the other, and a pistol grip on the side, with a trigger switch to turn it on. In use, the device is held up to the mouth, and the trigger is pressed to turn it on while speaking. Other larger versions hang from the shoulder on a strap, and have a separate handheld microphone on a cord to speak into, so users can address a crowd without the instrument obscuring their faces. A vast array of modern electric megaphones are available to purchase, and characteristics like power, weight, price, and the presence of alarms and shoulder straps all contribute to a consumer’s choice.

One Response to “Morning name: bullhorn”

  1. mikepope Says:

    >presumably an allusion to the power of the creatures,

    I would have thought it was due to the shape (“pointy” on one end, wide on the other)–? Tho I suppose the notion of a sound-producing horn has been around since pre-history.

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