One day in the late 1930s, Gilbert H. Wright was shaving with an electric razor, when he noticed that “queer sounds came out of his mouth” when the razor passed over his Adam’s apple. He soon discovered that by silently articulating words with his mouth and lips, the sound of the razor was formed into speech. From this initial observation, Wright developed a device that he dubbed the Sonovox, whereby a sound recording was fed into two hand-held speakers that would be placed on each side of the throat. Whatever sounds were on the recording were transmitted to the larynx, so that they came out of the throat as if produced there, and could then be shaped into speech by articulating the desired words. Sounds could thus be made to speak, or as a 1939 Time magazine article put it: “a grunting pig, relayed through the human voice-box, can be made to observe: ‘It’s a wise pig who knows his own fodder.’” What practical applications could be found for Wright’s bizarre invention in the early 1940s?
The Sonovox found one of its most lucrative implementations in the field of radio advertising. Wright’s Sonovox made its broadcasting debut in September 1941, a time when the radio industry was debating the role of spot advertisements. A widespread radio advertising technique of that time was the musical jingle. Advertisers had learned from market research that the repetition provided by jingles was an important form of brand identification. The Sonovox was thought to provide some of the same sonic attributes and benefits, and Wright’s brother-in-law, James L. Free, who worked in radio advertising, actively shopped the Sonovox to the industry. The Sonovox’s distinction in the field of radio advertising, one article stated, was that it could “make a vacuum cleaner talk.” On radio ads of this time, Wright’s invention sometimes made musical instruments speak commercial messages: in a Shell ad, an organ said, “Stop at the sign of the Shell”; a Colgate ad featured a Novachord playing the tune of “Good Night, Ladies,” which was made to say, “V-E-L, my hands feel so soft and smooth with Vel. Vel swell, ladies.” The Sonovox also made objects speak: “pots and pans…sang that they just loved to be washed” in an advertisement for dish soap; a chugging locomotive became the words, “Bromo Seltzer”; and a car horn was made to say, “Better Buy Buick.” A 1942 radio spot for Lifebuoy soap begins with two long blasts of a foghorn.
Sonovox spot ads spurred the imagination of writers and advertisers who described a world of the not-so-distant future in which brand name goods would speak to consumers at every turn: one article gushed that a day would come “when sound will talk and sing on every side – not merely in the movies and on the air but all over the place, with bus horns proclaiming the name of the bus company, delivery trucks calling out their wares as they honk, and train whistles announcing the name of the train. Once it would have been regarded as exotic if milk trucks could moo. Thanks to Sonovox, they can now moo the name of the dairy.” Such fantasies may not have materialized, but Sonovox radio spots were certainly precursors to well-known animated television ads of the 1950s that depicted square-dancing Lucky Strike cigarettes, marching Rheingold beer bottles, and singing Muriel cigars. In his famous description of the commodity fetish, Karl Marx offered the image of a table that, as soon as it becomes a commodity, changes into a thing that “stands on its head, and evolves out of its brain grotesque ideas, far more wonderful than if it were to begin dancing of its own free will.” The Sonovox seemed to provide commodities the chance not only to come to life, but to articulate some of those “grotesque ideas” directly to consumers.