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Imperial War Museums - How Science Silenced the Guns
You are on a First World War battlefield. An enemy artillery gun is firing at your lines. Lives are being lost. You need to stop that gun – but how can you stop it if you don’t know where it is?
This was a constant problem faced by the British army in the First World War until a team of scientists solved it by perfecting a technique called sound ranging.
Six microphones were placed in a curve behind the front line trenches and a soldier near the front line was given a button. Each microphone was connected to a thin wire that moved when it picked up a sound.
As each wire cast a shadow onto a moving piece of photographic film, a record was made of the sound received by each microphone.
When an enemy gun fired, it produced a flash. When he saw the flash, the soldier with the button would press it, starting the film moving.
Because light travels faster than sound, he had time to switch it on before the sound reached the microphones.
The microphones were all at slightly different distances from the gun and picked up the sound at slightly different times. When each microphone picked up the sound, the corresponding wire moved and its shadow left a “blip” on the photographic film.
Once the film had been developed, it was possible to measure the time delay between each pair of “blips”. Now they had information, but still needed to find the gun.
To do this, sound rangers would use a map mounted on a board which showed the locations of the microphones. Between each pair of microphones would be a pin.
At the other end of the board, there were five time delay scales, one for each pair of microphones. All they had to do is connect the pin between each pair of microphones. The enemy gun would be located where the five pieces of string crossed.
Field Music at IWM London
In a specially commissioned live performance of new music, Field Music brings a night of sound, song and animation set against the dramatic backdrop of IWM London on 31 January 2019. They will take influence from a graphic record, which captures the moment the guns fell silent at the end of the First World War.
The main problem with using sound to find guns is that each firing produced several different sounds. The gun made a noise when it was fired, the shell made a noise when it broke the sound barrier in the air and again when it exploded.
A clue to solving this problem was found by William Lawrence Bragg, a British scientist, while he was sitting on a toilet. He noticed that every time a gun fired nearby he was lifted slightly off the seat.
This was caused by the pressure wave from the firing gun entering the pipe connected to the toilet. Another British scientist, William Sansome Tucker, had a similar experience while trying to sleep in his tent in the winter.
He realised that the cold puffs of air that were making him shiver were caused by the pressure waves from nearby guns. Tucker designed a microphone that could detect the cooling effect of these puffs of air on a heated piece of wire.
This new low frequency microphone worked brilliantly. The sound of a gun firing produced a large “blip” on the photographic film while the other sounds barely registered at all.
Sound ranging played an important part in British operations from 1917 onwards including at Passchendaele and Cambrai.
It was used to disable as many enemy guns as possible before the infantry advanced, giving the troops the best possible chance of success.
In the sound ranging film above, the guns are firing just one minute before the Armistice took effect at 11am on 11 November 1918. The peace which followed the Armistice can also be seen as the guns fell silent after four years of brutal fighting.
Join Field Music at IWM London as they use this rare document from IWM's extensive collections, to explore the energy, hope and fragility brought about by the end of the First World War.
I Was There: Room of Voices
In this immersive sound installation, 32 people who fought and lived through the First World War share their personal stories of the Armistice, using recordings from the IWM Sound Archive. Part of the Making a New World season.
Les Enfants Terribles presents The Trench by Oliver Lansley Southwark Playhouse | Until 17 November First World War epic The Trench has now opened at Southwark Playhouse. Olivier Award nominated Les Enfants Terribles bring their signature style of visual storytelling to the stage; blending live music, puppetry and physical performance for this special centenary production. Find out more.