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Alternate Question Title: Did Stephen Bartholomew invent noise cancellation?

I just read "The Rumble and the Roar" by Stephen Bartholomew (Worlds of If Science Fiction, February 1957)

It is a story about high noise levels in modern/future society and the invention of a machine the cancels it out. 1957 seems pretty early for that technology to have had a real life existence. The Wikipedia article on the subject does not have any history.

Edit a couple days later It seems I was mistaken: the book talks about 'Active noise control' which is not synonymous with 'White noise'. The Wikipedia page on Active noise control shows a history of patents being granted for the idea as far back as 1936.

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    It's fairly certain that "white noise" was not invented by a science fiction author. Work in the branches of mathematics and physics that lead to modern signal processing has been going on since at least the early 1800s (Carl Friedrich Gauß) White noise is also often known as "gaussian noise. – JRE Jun 15 at 13:22
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    Noise cancellation in one thing, masking with white noise is another thing. If you are using white noise to eliminate background noise, then that's "masking" - white noise doesn't irritate the same as talking voices or traffic sounds, so you just make a loud, continuoud white noise and drown the irritating noises. Quite possible with technology from the 1950s - and earlier. Just tune your AM radio between stations, and crank up the volume. – JRE Jun 15 at 13:26
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    Noise cancellation is where you actively generate an opposed sound in order to neutralize the disturbing sounds. The net result is silence, rather than a continuous sound as with white noise masking. Noise cancellation is hard. The idea has been around for a long time. You can easily demonstrate the concept with a couple of speakers and a signal generator - this is a standard physics experiment that has been used for a very long time. Doing it live with every ambient sound is a very difficult task, though, which is why we don't have household sized silencers. – JRE Jun 15 at 13:32
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    That is to say, silencers that can cancel ambient noise for a whole house. With care and careful design, cancelers can be made that will greatly reduce external noises in a small space - like headphones. – JRE Jun 15 at 13:34
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    Please edit your question to make it clear that you're looking for stories about noise cancellation devices (as in that Bartholomew story), not stories about "white noise". – user14111 Jun 16 at 5:16
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An earlier story about noise cancellation (not "white noise"):

1899: "The Horn of Marcus Brunder", a short story by Howard Reynolds in the June 1899 issue of The Black Cat. From Everett F. Bleiler's review in Science-Fiction: The Early Years:

The story of Brunder, a strange little man who now wanders about the noisy sections of downtown Boston with a huge horn strapped to his back.

Backflash: The frame narrator, who maintains an office in an extraordinarily noisy port of the city, is often distressed by the racket outside. Brunder offers to cancel out the noise by inventing an apparatus that will nullify the vibrations by countervibrations. His experiments seem to advance, until in a disastrous moment he decides to test his progress at the Army proving grounds. The only result is that he loses his hearing. The invention seems as far away as ever.

  • That's noise cancellation, not white noise. – JRE Jun 17 at 17:09
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    @JRE I know. Notwithstanding the OP's terminological confusion about "white noise", I figured that he really wanted stories about noise cancellation, since that's what his example "The Rumble and the Roar" is about. – user14111 Jun 17 at 17:27
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Here's a 1950 story about a noise cancelling device, like the one in the story you linked to in the question. Nothing about white noise, though.

1950: "Silence, Please!", a short story by Arthur C. Clarke in his Tales From the White Hart series; first published (as by Charles Willis) in Science-Fantasy, Winter 1950, available at the Internet Archive.


From the Wikipedia summary:

This comic story describes the efforts of a brilliant college student to design a machine that would produce a field of absolute silence. The gadget is then used in a prank, with tragic results. The story touches (albeit in a humorous way) on the popular science fiction theme of an inventor coming to grief at the hands of their invention that is best known from Mary Shelley's novel Frankenstein. The piece also references the composer "Edward England", an obvious parody of the work of Benjamin Britten.

The "Fenton Silencer" described in the story uses the same phase-inversion principle found in modern noise-canceling earphones.


Excerpts from the story:

"Suppose you have a train of waves — a peak here, a trough there, and so on. Then you take another train of waves and superimpose the two. What would you get?"

"Well, it depends on how you do it, I imagine."

"Precisely. Suppose you arranged it so that the trough of one wave coincided with the peak of the other, and so on all along the train."

"Then you'd get complete cancellation — nothing at all. Good heavens — !"

"Exactly. Now let's say we've got a source of sound. I put a microphone near it and feed the output to what we'll call an inverting amplifier. That drives a loudspeaker, and the whole thing is arranged so that the output is kept automatically at the same amplitude as the input, only out of phase with it. What's the net result?"

"It doesn't seem reasonable . . . but in theory it should give complete silence. There must be a catch somewhere."

"Where? It’s only the principle of negative feed-back, which has been used in radio for years to get rid of things you don't want."

[. . . .]

"I haven't made very extensive tests, but this unit can be adjusted to give almost complete silence over a radius of twenty feet. Outside that, sounds are deadened for another thirty feet, and further away everything is normal again. You could cover any area you liked simply by increasing the power. This unit has an output of about three watts of 'negative sound', and it couldn't handle very intense noises. But I think I could make a model to blank out the Albert Hall if I wanted to — though I might draw the line at Wembley Stadium."

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