Mara Mills

Associate Scholar

20092010 Forum on Connections

Mara Mills

SAS Postdoctoral Fellow
History and Sociology of Science

The Dead Room: Deafness and Communication Engineering

I am interested in the way sounds came to be thought of as "signals,” and the ways these signals have been processed for the sake of efficiency. My current research focuses on the speech and hearing studies conducted by American telephone engineers in the first half of the 20th century, and their significance to information theory, digital coding, and cybernetics. I argue that deafness was central to the emergence of communication engineering. Hearing loss, or deafening, served as a major analogy for signal reception in noise. With hearing loss conceived as “communicable,” through noisy environments or faulty machines, standards for “good communication” became ever more stringent. At the same time, techniques for deaf oral communication—lip-reading, graphic inscription, tactile vibration—indicated ways for speech to be translated, compressed, coded and fed-back.