Historical Calling Technology: The Speaking Tube

by Jennifer Leigh Sears Scheier

Before the mid-nineteenth century, prompters used aural methods to “call” the show. Prompters used bells, whistles, flags and call boys to signal a change in lights, scenery, or to cue a special effect. (See my earlier article on Calling Technology for more information on the different calling methods.) Over the next half century, calling procedures changed significantly. The audience heard and associated the bells and whistles as part of the performance, however, with new technology the prompter’s calling duties transformed into a silent, invisible activity. The first step towards imperceptible cueing was the speaking tube.

Picture your favorite children’s playground. Remember those long tubes that ran from one side of the playground to the other? The one that you asked your siblings, friends or family members to help you test out. It would have looked something similar this:
Speaking tube on a playgroundLong before these talking tubes took over children’s playgrounds, this technology was used in large buildings, including theatres, to allow two-way communication between rooms and areas. The speaking tube was first patented in 1849 and gained popularity between 1860-1890. These speaking tubes came in a variety of designs:

Mouthpieces and Whistles for speaking tubes. From Modern PlumberSpeaking tubes were often plugged with a whistle to notify the intending party of an upcoming message. Speaking tubes allowed prompters to communicate with individuals throughout the theatre. They also allowed those parties to respond to the prompter, a feat that was not possible before. In some systems, a dial was installed at each station to control which speaking tube was receiving the message (pictured below).

An illustration from Patent No. 540, 529 by G. S. Williamson for an Electrically Controlled Speaking Tube. June 4, 1895The installation of speaking tubes in backstage areas allowed prompters to easily communicate to several backstage areas. As prompters used speaking tubes to signal cues and effects, their aural impact on the performance decreased.

©Jennifer Leigh Sears Scheier. All Rights Reserved.