Special Online Exhibit: The Incredible Human Voice

What is Communication?

The process of conveying and exchanging information.

                                         ~Perspectives on History, The American Historical Association

Our special online exhibit here takes a very brief but distinctly different look at communication.  Here we celebrate perhaps humanity’s first and most powerful historical communication technology–the human voice.

Other communication technologies (e.g., hardware inventions) might be impressive, but nothing compares to the sophisticated biological machinery of the human voice, with its complicated and integrated system of sound production (speech), reception (hearing), and message processing (brain) mechanisms. 


Anthropologists and evolutionary scientists believe that human communication is rooted in the origin of speech, about 100,000 years ago. The substantial use of symbols came about 70,000 years later, and systems of writing (literacy) were only developed around 5,500 years ago. 

Oral communication, then, is chief among all historical modes of communication, and human speech is the primary communication technology that powered human culture and daily existence until the invention of symbols and writing.  

As a communication tool, the human voice is a primary and superlative technology among all else–functional and instructional.  We humans learn this the moment we exit the womb.  The first sounds we hear are voices of care and authority, love and learning.

Understanding and using the human voice is the first technology we master. This is why we celebrate the human voice, along with three important related activities made possible by the human voice: storytelling, sound recording, and doing oral history.


But the human voice is more than technology.  As the late oral historian and storyteller Studs Terkel passionately asserted his entire life, the human voice is what identifies and reveals our humanity.

Of course, it can be quite crass and ugly at times (think “fighting words”), but the sound of the human voice can also be angelic, full of sweetness and light.  Think of a song, poem, or story performed so beautifully that it leaves you in awe. Think of the sound a loved one’s voice that made your heart sing for joy or weep for its absence.

This is the power of the human voice.

However, we are reminded of what Mark Twain said when he was told that Texas and Main were finally connected by the telegraph.  Great!, he exclaimed, but what do they have to say to each other?