Friday, July 9, 2010

pneumatic sounds

In previous posts I have commented on the sounds of pneumatic tubes, and lately I have been having some fantastic conversations with my brother-in-law about the acoustics of these hospital systems. Andy has previously directed me towards great sounds sites such as soundtransit and the soundscape journal.

In hospitals, I remember reading on a hospital ethnography mailing list about Lindsey Messervy's Masters of Design Ethnography topic on the sonic environment of hospitals (I have looked but cannot find any further information about the project, and any links would be greatly appreciated). Anthropologist Tom Rice has published work on the acoustics of cardiac auscultation and the stethoscope, whilst hospital artist-in-residence John Wynne discusses the auditory dimensions of his collaborative work with photographer Tim Wainwright on a transplant ward at Harefield Hospital (both of the hyperlinks in this paragraph have audiofiles included).

The sound of pneumatic tubes was mentioned in an article in the New England Journal of Medicine (February 11 1993, 328 (6): 433 - 437) entitled "Pandemonium in the modern hospital". Author Gerald Grumet notes that "a pneumatic-tube carrier arrives with a 88-dB(A) thud". I can't help but include a longer quote from this article:
"The modern hospital, where the previously serene milieu is gradually being debased by a sonic assault on the ears and psyche. The hospital atmosphere of the 1940s and 1950s was one of austere silence, as in a library reading room. Hallways displayed a ubiquitous picture of a uniformed nurse, finger to the lips, sometimes accompanied by the words, "Quiet Please." Signs on the street read, "Hospital Zone - Quiet." The occasional overheard page for a physician signaled a true emergency. But that subdued setting has gradually been replaced by one of turbulence and frenzied activity. People not dart about in a race against time; telephones ring loudly; intercom systems blare out abrupt, high-decibel messages that startle the unsuspecting listener. These sounds are superimposed on a collection of beeps and whines from an assortment of electronic gadgets - pocket pagers, call buttons, telemetric monitoring systems, electronic intravenous machines, ventilator alarms, patient-activity monitors, and computer printers. The hospital, designed as a places of healing and tranquility for patients and of scholarly exchanges among physicians, has become a place of beeping, buzzing, banging, clanging, and shouting" (Grumet 1993, p433).
I wonder if there are any recordings of the austere silence of serene days gone by? This seems rather romantically nostalgic to me. Or have advances in technology meant that there are more sounds in the hospital? Has the pneumatic tube been a rumbling constant through the years, or has that also changed? Do these sounds detract from hospitals as places of healing as Grumet suggests, or are they part of the therapeutic soundscape?

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