In a World of Technology, the Megaphone Still Blares

We’ve all seen a film with a scene like this. The police cars have screeched to a halt, cops have jumped out and are now taking cover behind the car doors, guns aimed on some unseen threat. The camera scans to the left and there’s the detective, raincoat already soaked by the torrential downpour, valiantly speaking through a megaphone.

It’s true that if this was filmed today, the detective would have to sign some dangerous situation waiver and communication with the bad guy would probably be via Twitter or his iPhone. But what if the – probably English-accented – bad guy was unable to access his social networking accounts? Then the trusty loud hailer would come back into action in a return to the limelight of which Paula Abdul would be proud.

It’d odd to think about it, but in an age that seems to be dominated by technology, there’s still room for something that seems almost amusingly old fashioned. The police and fire services employ all kinds of modern technology to carry out their work, from GPS systems to infrared cameras and face recognition technology. But what do they use when they need to get a message to someone trapped inside a building, or stranded on top of a roof?

They could ask them to be their friend on Facebook or they could invite them to an instant messaging session, but there’s always a chance that the woman perched precariously 50 floors up on a midtown skyscraper, or the international criminal holed up in a downtown tenement might not have access to a Wi-Fi connection.

In which case, the megaphone comes into its own. One of the reasons for this is that it’s a perfect example of form and function. Originally invented way back in the seventeenth century as a “speaking trumpet,” the basic principle of an aid to amplified speech has remained largely unchanged since then. Of course they can now be electrified, but even the hand-held version so beloved by all those seventies cop movies, remains a useful tool.

After all, the hand-held speech amplifier is still used for a very good reason. It works. It’s also incredibly versatile and can and has been used in the meanest city streets as well as the wide-open spaces of the Rockies. Coast to coast, north to south, someone somewhere is using a megaphone for as many purposes as Jay Leno has cars. Whether it’s saving a life or on a protest march, it gets people heard.

Even the hallowed corridors of popular music have benefited from the portable loudspeaker. Listen to the Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine” and what do we hear echoing Ringo’s baritone warbling? It is none other than John’s repeated phrase carried through that trusty speaking trumpet. It just wouldn’t have been the same had Lennon replied to Starr’s singing via text message.

The loud hailer had become a tool in the great cultural revolution of the 1960s as its sound issued from a million transistor radios across the world. It was all a long way from the 1670s. However, it’s the fire services that have almost made the megaphone their own. With just the use of a few batteries, a fireman or firewoman can hail someone who’s trapped in a burning building and pass on vital instructions that could save that person’s life.

They’re also cheap, certainly less expensive than most of today’s touch screen telephones, and they’re not subject to network coverage. Hundreds of years after they were first invented, the megaphone is still helping to save lives. Now there’s something to shout about.