A clear display case stands by itself in the SPARK Museum in downtown Bellingham. Inside is something distinctly untechnical- a plain megaphone of crude construction. The megaphone was built and used by the musician Rudy Vallee, whose music career stretched from 1921 to 1973. Rudy Vallee was an unusual singer at the time of his debut. The popular music of the time was classic blue, a style characterized by big bands and loud, gutsy female singers known later as “jazz screamers.” The size of the band required singers to be loud in order to be heard over the band. But Rudy Vallee had a soft voice. Vallee relied on his megaphones to amplify his voice over the bands he played with and the image of Vallee singing with megaphones became iconic.
Vallee’s popularity coincided with the commercialization of microphones. The technology for microphones had existed for nearly half a century before Vallee’s fame. The simplest version of a microphone is often used as a children’s toy- two cups connected by a string. The speaker’s voice, when spoken into one cup, travels down the string to be heard through the second cup. Alexander Graham Bell’s 1888 patent, “Improvement in Telegraphy,” mirrored this but replaced the string with a wire to transmit electrical current and added a transmitter and receiver to convert speech to electrical current. The microphone went through various iterations before it came upon the name microphone and became commercially viable.
By the early 1920s, emergent commercial broadcasting required better microphones and amplification. Companies began to get involved in invention to meet industry demands to develop a cheaper, smaller microphone. This allowed the technology to spread beyond high budget studios to fledgling musicians and venues. Vocal styles then changed from the bold volume of jazz screamers as the microphone allowed more melodic vocal styles to be amplified above the band. Genres like gospel, doo-wop, and country emerged from this shift. Vallee rose to popularity during a transitional period as microphones were coming into popularity. His iconic megaphone was important in amplifying his crooning before Vallee began to use a microphone. Today, his legacy is a testament to the ingenuity of innovators in music and is featured at the SPARK Museum of Electrical Invention.