How did large congregations of people hear speeches (i.e. Lincoln’s address, and countless other older speeches) without the use of microphones?


How did large congregations of people hear speeches (i.e. Lincoln’s address, and countless other older speeches) without the use of microphones?

In: Technology

If people are quiet, and there is no traffic or other sources of noise nearby, the voice of a single shouting man can be clearly heard for quite a long way away. In addition the large congregations were usually held at big amphitheaters which are specifically designed to help the sound from the stage carry outwards. The stages usually had reflectors and resonators at strategic places to make this happen. Where there were problems hearing the people speaking they would use megaphones. These are large cones that a speaker could shout into in order for his voice to become louder and more directed so that more people could hear them. Popular speeches would also be written down or memorized so they could be retold. A lot of the people attending political congregations would be campaigners who would go back to their home towns and recite the speech word for word so that even more would be able to hear it.

We’ve actually known about audio engineering for quite a while. Understanding that audio waves bounce is why medieval cathedrals were constructed the way they were, to maximize the echo. If everyone agrees to be quiet, the echoes amplify sound.

A really cool American version of this is at the Old South Meeting House in historic Boston. In the 1700s, they were able to understand echoes well enough to come up with a manual amplifier, namely a solid disk over the lectern.

There were almost no machines. A person in a field could yell a message for many KMs.

Everyone at Gettysburg respected Lincoln, so they all shut up.

I’ve forgotten the actual name of the thing, but I once stood as a tourist in the back of an enormous Mormon meeting hall in Salt Lake City and was able to clearly hear a person speaking from the podium in a normal tone of voice without amplification. It was very impressive architecture.

What’s so special about the cheesemakers?

Some people have powerful voices, and politicians and orators would practice and take lessons to speak in a way to be heard by crowds. Benjamin Franklin did an experiment in which he kept backing away from a preacher addressing an outdoor gathering. When he got as far away as he could, and still hear the speaker, he calculated how many people could stand in a circle that big. It turned out a speaker could address a crowd of 5000 or more without amplification.

There are early recordings of singers and orators who were used to theaters and auditoriums without amplification, you can hear that they are belting it out in a way you don’t hear anymore.


So I know of old churches that have “speaking stones” they were stone slabs that hung over the speaker to reflect their voice to give more clarity and volume to the audience. Humans have found lots of ways to amplify sounds beyond microphone/speaker technology.

Blessed are the *cheesemakers*?

I’ve heard that Lincoln’s voice carried well because he had a particularly high voice. Apparently high voices carrie further than low/deep voices. That’s why Daniel Day-Lewis portrayed him with that kind of voice in the *Lincoln* movie.

A combination of ways. First off, you pick a venue with great accoustics. We’ve known since the middle ages how to design spaces in such a way as to make what is being said/sung in one spot easily audible throughout. I’ve sung unmiced in cathdrals older than the western world and been heard fine. Also training. My background is in music, and as a vocalist, I have trained myself to enunciate clearly and project the sound. Someone making speeches would recieve similar training.

I always get a giggle out of those pre-battle scenes where the hero/commander rides up and down the front line, encouraging the troops with a perfectly written charismatic speech.

Men are lined up 100 rows deep and 1000 columns wide. But nobody can hear him beyond row three and since he’s riding up and down the line, all soldiers in row 1 can hear is garbled: “Men! Today we… hacked to death but… they cannot take… Forgotten!”

Generally speaking, when speeches were conducted the place was chosen to also amplify the speaker’s voice. Often, the place was built to bounce sound waves about.

It also helped that people were generally bound by a strong moral code, though we may not agree with the code now because the code allowed for horrible atrocities to be committed, and diverting from that code was very much frowned upon. So, if a person would talk too much, they were removed or be socially ostracized, so most people would be quiet.

I have the answer for this. People would repeat what was being said further back, as in they would pass the word backwards. And speeches would have pauses for this to happen. It is known.

Nobody has mentioned the significance of the crowd itself. The larger the group, the less each word matters.

If ten thousand people show up, that means:

1. They already know pretty much what to expect.
2. The speaker is very good, so they will use not just volume, but enunciation, rhythm and body language

Think of the performance like a concert. You do not need to hear every word to get the message.

Has anyone on here ever been on the railroad like with freight trains? I am thinking about being a conductor I just need to know what to expect

I think crowds were much quieter and listened. Because of PA systems people in crowds are much louder because they can be. The PA system at a basketball game, for example, is insanely loud. As a result, people in the audience are yelling at the person next to them. It’s like an arms race.