What was the technology the Smithsonian used for audio tours in 1980s?
July 3, 2017 7:23 AM   Subscribe

As a child of Northern Virginia in the mid- to late- 1980s, I recall from many class and family trips to the Smithsonian the image of people carrying long white sticks with a telephone-like receiver on one end for audio tours. There were signs (with the symbol of the white stick) around the exhibits indicating where one could listen to audio about that exhibit. I think they were wireless, but I don't trust my flawed human memory. What was this technology? How did it work?
posted by mrbeefy to Technology (5 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I think it was short range radio broadcast some kind of close loop system that reminds me of the modern FM loops some people use in schools for heart of hearing kids. You could rent a little receivers at the gift shop, about the size of an elongated toilet paper core. and it would broadcast in a small area around the sticks set up at various points in the area.

They use these extensively in Carlsbad caverns, and a couple other places I went growing up. Carlsbad is the only one I recall distinctly. Probably some sort of a closed loop audio system, because Carlsbad was paved with asphalts by the time I was oiled enough to walk down in the caverns, and the broadcast was from these little stations there. They never overlapped and range, just put on repeat. There's one stick to "start" one broadcast, wire embedded in the asphalt, then another stick or bar to end the broadcast area.

I went to get about 15 years ago, And I remember renting them then, a nostalgic throwback thing.
posted by tilde at 7:59 AM on July 3, 2017

Best answer: The introduction to Digital Technologies & the Museum Experience lists (and has photos of) some historical audio guide technologies.
posted by zamboni at 8:15 AM on July 3, 2017 [2 favorites]

hard of hearing kids, who don't necessarily use a hearing aid. And I said closed loop twice, I meant closed loop FM system ... a range lower than most hand-held radios got. And I went again fifteen years ago, not a get.

Here it is:

Please inquire about the very informative audio guide that is available to rent for $5 per day at the cavern store. You may listen to this audio tour as you walk through the cavern, stop-by-stop, listening to information about the cave that is interesting and educational. Available in many languages, and adult and children's versions.
Looks like they are bigger than paper towel rolls now.

Updated for push button features now, huh! Or my memory really sucks.
The audio tour at Carlsbad Caverns uses a handheld wand that is placed against the ear like
a cellular phone. Along the paved trails, each of the 50 audio stops is marked with a small
numbered sign. A speaker in the wand transmits information, cued when the user presses
the stop number on the keypad. The Big Room tour includes 30 minutes of total narration.
Approximately 20% of park visitors rent the audio tour, which is available in English or
Spanish for a price of $3.00. Some audio stops are at the same places where interpretive
signs are located, while others are not. The content of the audio tour mostly matches what
can be found on the signs within the caves, but offers greater detail and touches on several
subjects not addressed in the signs. Sounds and music are used where appropriate to add to
the program’s quality. A female and a male actor alternate the narration in a conversational
format. They occasionally ask questions of listeners to help create interest and foreshadow
information that will be provided at upcoming audio locations. Interview excerpts with
park staff, cave experts, and visitors add a diversity of voices to the program
posted by tilde at 8:29 AM on July 3, 2017

Response by poster: Thanks to zamboni’s link, I think it might be the Telesonic Lorgnette. The image jogs my memories. I’m presently searching for confirmation that this was what the Smithsonian used and will let it be known what I find.
posted by mrbeefy at 9:55 AM on July 3, 2017

I remember renting one of those for an exhibition at the National Gallery, next-door to the Smithsonian, in the 1980s. You would hear more detailed information about whichever display you happened to be standing in front of.
posted by Rash at 12:57 PM on July 3, 2017

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