Natural Radio

Energizing Encounter with Douglas Kahn

What makes Australia and especially Sydney for radio art researchers like me such a desirable place to go to is the variety of sound and radio artists and scholars, who live and work there. There are numerous reasons for this cluster or gathering, as I found out during my research stay. However, one main reason certainly is Douglas Kahn, Professor for Media and Innovation at the University of New South Wales. Being responsible for such outstanding, seminal books like the essay collection Wireless Imagination. Sound, Radio and The Avant-Garde (1992), which he co-edited with the radio artist Gregory Whitehead and his two monographs Noise, Water, Meat. A History of Sound in the Arts (1999) and Earth Sound Earth Signal. Energies and Earth Magnitude in the Arts (2013), Douglas Kahn attracts PhD candidates and researchers from all over the world, who are interested in radio and sound and their relation to the arts. 


When I eventually dared to contact Douglas Kahn and kindly asked him for an interview, he was very friendly and generous and invited me to visit him at his home in Katoomba, a cozy little town at the fringe of the overwhelming, scenic Blue Mountains Nation Park, about two hours by train west of Sydney. 

After I had read „Wireless Imagination“ and „Noise Water Meat“ with great benefit for my own research on the epistemology of radio art, I turned to „Earth Sound Earth Signal“, which left me behind quite a bit baffled at first. At the same time I developed the hunch that this book is about something really fascinating, mind-blowing. And as I like challenges, I kept coming back to it, over and over again. One sentence, which had struck me in particular, was „Radio was heard before it was invented and it was broadcast before it was heard.“ Therefore I asked Doug at the beginning of our interview, if he would be so kind to explain this phenomenon, which is called „natural radio“. You can listen to the interview dubbed in German here, and you can read it below in English. This is what Doug answered: 

Natural radio is radio that is generated by activities within the atmosphere of the Earth, the ionosphere and the magnetosphere. For example when we see lightning, the visible light indicates that the electromagnetic spectrum burst but through this explosions also a lot of radio and even x-rays come out of lightning and what happens then is that this beautiful form of natural radio called whistlers becomes audible with the help of electronic devices. These sounds are called whistlers because they make “whew”, they have a little glissando sometimes …


This burst of electromagnetism that comes out of lightning will go up and bounce off the ionosphere and back down to Earth and bounce off the Earth and go zigzag for hundreds of kilometers.

Trajectory of lightning-generated whistler through the magnetosphere. Illustration by Pia van Gelder. Courtesy of the artist


People will know that if there’s a thunderstorm and they are listening on the radio, like a transistor radio, they can hear the whistlers. They’ll hear “crack”. The lightning could indicate that the storm is still very far away but that crack can be heard already. This crack is the electromagnetic activity coming within the human audible range from lightning.

This was not known until the 1950s but this little packet of energy catches a ride on the magnetosphere, on these magneto-ionic flux lines. People can imagine this with the help of a bar magnet and iron filings: when you have a magnet, put a sheet of paper on top and then scatter some iron filings on the paper. Then you will see these semicircles. That is the same that happens essentially within the magnetosphere. This little packet of energy spirals around, into the magnetosphere, which goes into outer space, not interplanetary space but deep space. It goes out on a big loop. Then it comes down in the opposite hemisphere but when it does, it gets lengthened out into these beautiful glissandi. Sometimes, they’ll bounce off of the Earth in the opposite hemisphere and come back. You get a „wehe”, this is why they are called echo trains of whistlers. This is a form of natural radio.

Another source of radio comes from the Aurora Borealis and the Aurora australis, anything electrical energetic within the atmosphere will elicit radio.


 So, natural radio is any kind of radio that is generated in a way that’s not made by humans, not anthropic or anthropogenic or whatever you want to call it.

Ania: Listening to you, I also could think you are a physicist or meteorologist speaking about such fascinating natural phenomena. But how is all that related to the arts and how did it strike your interest initially, so that you as a sound art and science historian decided to write a whole book on it and make it the core of a new research project?

 It was because my teacher Alvin Lucier and a friend of mine, the artist Joyce Hinterding, had both used natural radio in their music and artwork.

My interest arouse when I investigated compositions by Alvin Lucier. One of them was called „Whistlers“ and was from the mid-1960s. It was very important at the time for him although he later withdrew it from his catalog but he also did another piece called „Sferics“, as in atmospherics.


The other artist that I was interested in, whose work eventually prompted the book, is Joyce Hinterding. She lives not far from here in the Blue Mountains. She collaborates often with her partner David Haines. In August 2015 they had a very big exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art, the main contemporary art museum in Sydney, a very big popular show called Energies.

I’ve known them since the 1990s and one work of Joyce, which I consider being a masterwork from the 1990s, is the piece called Aeriology. There has been a number of different versions of it. But for this one let’s just think of an industrial warehouse, the types of places, which artists often take over as art exhibition spaces.

Aeriology (1995) by Joyce Hinterding. Courtesy of the artist

 Imagine four pillars or columns, in the United States this space is called „bay“. Well, for Aeriology and this version from 1995, Joyce took about 20 or 30 kilometers of copper wire and wound it around those four columns.

So what you get is a cube that’s on four of its sides of copper wire. And then there’s the ceiling above and the floor on the bottom. It’s a beautiful piece just in and of itself, but what it does is it turns itself into an antenna of sorts and also a battery. It attracts the ambient electricity, ambient electromagnetism and electricity within the bay.

So for me that’s like a monument. Of course it’s not technologically efficient, let’s say, to have 30 kilometers of copper wire. Just the energy balance on it is not so good. But it’s a monument of the possibility of a different relationship to environmental energy that has really necessary ecological implications.

Ania:  And when did you decide to write a whole book on this two artists and their work?

I was asked, I think, in 2002 to present a paper for the Society for Literature, Science, and the Arts on data atmospheres. I decided to present a paper on Lucier’s and Hinterding’s use of natural radio. Then, immediately after presenting the paper, I realized I didn’t know what I was talking about, so I started investigating it. I realized soon that I had to get into the science of it. I’d been into mathematics. I was a math and chemistry major as an undergraduate in university. I was not intimidated by the science but I had to take out about three years to get back into it. Pretty much for three years, I just was reading scientific literature and wanted to get enough knowledge not to embarrass myself too much when I was dealing with the topic.

I had a dedicated education in this field that took me into a number of branches of the sciences but at that time, the history of science on the natural radio just went back to 1919, primarily. The first scientific papers were written in the wake of World War 1 by the German Heinrich Barkhausen and the Briton Thomas Eckersley. They were both involved in the Signal Corps of their armies during World War 1. They would, in different ways, be listening for enemy radio transmissions and try to locate with a direction-finding antenna where the radio signal was coming from. They ended up hearing these “whoosh, whoosh, crack, whoosh”, all these noises and beautiful sounds. Barkhausen says in his paper that it sounded like shells flying over.

When I started looking into it, my friend, the artist Paul DeMarinis said, „I think I remember reading something about that in Thomas Watson’s autobiography.”

Ania: The assistant of Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone.

The late Thomas A. Watson (1854 – 1934) in 1931 holding Alexander Graham Bell’s original telephone from 1876.

                 Exactly. Thomas Watson was Alexander Graham Bell’s assistant. As the legend goes, his name was the first name in telecommunications, in modern communications, when he heard, „Watson, come here. I need you,“ when Bell was barking out these big boss man orders. Instead of hearing it from the other room, he heard it in the earliest telephone.

I started investigating, trying to find information on Watson. I ended up contacting his grandson, who was still alive. His grandson was, I think 83 years old at the time. This was very fascinating for me because when Watson was first working with Bell on the telephone it was 1876. So the grandson was kind of a direct connection to the first telephone.

Anyway, I was talking to his grandson. His grandson told me about these pamphlets that he had done and all this other type of literature that was not in the public record anywhere. Nobody knew any of this because all the historians had always concentrated on Alexander Graham Bell. But what Watson would do was: during the day he would work on the telephone with Bell. There was a telephone test line that was half a mile long over the rooftops of Boston. It was an iron test line that they were using. But in the nighttime Watson would listen to these strange sounds.

Watson was a very interesting character. He was like a naturalist. In his autobiography he talks about when he was a young man, he would go lay on the roof of the barn and just look at the stars all night. He was really a very romantic type of individual.

 At nighttime in 1876, on this telephone test line, he would listen to these sounds for hours and hours. During daytime there was some competition from the telegraph lines. But back then, unlike today, when media is going 24 hours 7 days a week, the telegraph people would go home after work. At nighttime, there was no interruption from these telegraph lines so Watson could listen to natural radio.

Thomas A. Watson as a young man, watching stars on the roof of a barn and listening to natural radio all night long. Approximate date of photo is 1883.

What had happened was the telephone test line had turned into an antenna, receiving this natural radio from the Earth atmosphere. Nobody knew what an antenna was. This was in 1876, a decade before Heinrich Hertz verified James Clerk Maxwell’s theory about the existence of electromagnetic waves and radio. In fact, Maxwell had theorized them in terms of light. A decade later, it was Hertz, who verified their existence within radio. 1876 was also two decades before Marconi, the alleged inventor of the radio.

That’s why I say radio was heard before it was invented. It was heard unwittingly from Thomas Watson. He was the first person on Earth to hear radio, natural radio, due to his access to a unique technical apparatus that was the only one on at the time.

Ania: What is it that interested you about Thomas Watson the most?

I was trying to understand the work of two artists that let me into this history of science investigation but it was even more than a history of science because it was the history of observation of natural phenomenon not by scientists. Watson was not a scientist. He didn’t know what he was hearing. At first, he thought maybe it was the sound of an extraterrestrial species but he dismissed that because there was not enough regularity in the signals. He thought if it were a language, there would be some more regularity. He did dismiss that but he did think that it might be sounds from the sun which is actually closer because the solar storms affect the magnetosphere and the electrical activity on Earth and certainly the Aurora Borealis and things like that. There is solar noise but it wouldn’t have been picked up on the telephone line.

I’m not sure what you would call it, this grass roots history of natural phenomena associated with media, but what it does is it puts nature back into the history of media.

This was a way to re-introduce a notion of nature within the history of telecommunications and modern media. That was one history that this research reconfigured for me. I was not expecting anything like this. The other thing that it did do was that it reset the history of the avant-garde.

Ania: In what way?

Even from my earlier work, I would talk about the Italian futurist composer Luigi Russolo and his “Art of Noises” manifesto and his noises making instruments called “Intonarumori” as the codification of noise within the Western arts. Still now I think Russolo’s case might be the earliest codification of noise but the idea that people would listened to so-called “noise” for pleasure, it turns out that there are many other instances where what would otherwise be called noise was listened to for pleasure. Here was Thomas Watson staying up, it seems like all night sometimes, because he would talk about the “dawn chorus”, which is this particular type of natural radio that would come up first thing in the morning. Its noises are really beautiful. It sounds like a flock of birds.

Here was somebody doing what many people in their teens and twenties and older people like me do: Go to concerts and listen to these sounds that a lot of people would not consider to be music. But these noises are very beautiful and they’re very captivating. All I found out about Watson listening to natural radio put the history of noise, if not within the arts, then within an aesthetic experience back many years. Russolo was 1913, but with Watson we’re put back to 1876.

Ania: You write in your book that this possibility to listen to noises, which left the Earth for outer space and returned, is also a possibility to perceive a kind of unity of Earth without leaving it comparable to the Blue Marble, for example, this picture of the Earth, which the NASA took in 1972 from space of this planet and that became very important for the ecological thinking and environmental movement since then. This beautiful blue marble shaped the thinking of a whole generation or actually might have been the breakthrough of environmentalism. Would you say that the significance of Thomas Watson’s discovery of natural radio is comparable and goes in the same direction regarding its meaning for an enhanced consciousness for the environment and how it is endangered?

                      Sure. But I don’t think Watson appreciated that the sounds he heard were generated on Earth and then went to outer space, further out then the satellites or the spacecraft that were taking the pictures of the Earth.

The first thing that I mention in my book in terms of an energetic self-perception of the Earth or a self-reflective moment of the Earth, was in 1889 when Ernst von Rebeur-Paschwitz, a seismologist, who had a seismometer in Potsdam, Germany, 8,000 kilometers away from an earthquake in Tokyo, figured out afterward that the little perturbations within the seismometers were at the same time as the earthquake half way around the world.

This was the first instance of teleseismology much like telecommunications. I like this example because it helps us to get away from this sort of selfie, that the Blue Marble photo is: The biggest selfie of the Earth at that point.

I’m not denying the importance of the Blue Marble photographs at all or the Earthrise photographs or any of that. It was incredibly important in so many ways but there are all these other ways to sense the Earth that are not on a visible register, and that natural radio and seismology and things like that can do: You can be in one place and know what’s happening on the other side of the world and it’s not Facebook.

Immanuel Kant had the notion of the sublime. One notion of the sublime had to do with looking straight up and seeing this unfathomable vastness of outer space. The other one would be more immediate. It would be if you’re in the Alps and looking at this beauty but if you’re going to fall off the trail, you are dead. The sublime is this danger and beauty at the same time. If you’re looking at another mountain range far away, it’s the experience of not a very large part of the Earth and it is a personal experience of it.

For the longest time you either looked straight up to infinity or just on a regional basis, to experience the sublime. But with teleseismology since 1889 the national and international telegraph and then telephone lines and submarine cables started reaching out on the Earth scale as well.

At a certain point, when the telegraph lines and telephone lines were spread over the Earth, they were used as a sensing device, to study what we call magnetic storms now. The whole apparatus of communication was turned into a large sensing device for knowing what the Earth was doing at a larger than regional level, at an Earth scale.

Ania: Please let’s go back one more time to the term of the sublime, which you just mentioned. Because reading your book, it gives one the impression that your investigation in natural radio is about a sublime and overwhelming experience. And actually there is also a sort of sublime that is called the “technological sublime”, which is a particularly American concept. What would you say? Is your book about phenomena, which could be described best with the term “technological sublime”? Do you stand in the tradition of reflecting on the technological sublime which was introduced into the scientific discourse at first by Leo Marx, who coined this term in his seminal book “The Machine in the Garden“, referring to the 19th century when the stream trains crossed North America and technology was used by the European settlers to discover and rule the country? Is that what you are describing in respect of telecommunications somehow related to Leo Marx’ concept? Or is it another aspect of the technological sublime?

                                   I think it’s really a different part of the technological sublime I am interested in because the American Technological Sublime is often seen more as an expression of brute technology. It’s more about the freeway system in the United States or a new bridge or a hydroelectric dam, these big constructions of skyscrapers and the like.

 When the railroad was coming through, for instance, the telegraph line followed the railroad routes. You would have the brute force of the locomotive but you also had these telegraph lines. They did two things. One is they functioned as Aoelian harps. The wind going through the telegraph lines were listened to. I do a pocket history of a whole range of people including indigenous people on a few continents listening to the wind going through the telegraph lines, but the most famous one I concentrate on is the philosopher and poet Henry David Thoreau. In fact, he wrote quite a bit about it and called it „The telegraph harp“.

The notion of the Aoelian is traditionally very poetic and spiritual like all these other connotations for the music of nature, beautiful music not produced by humans.


Daguerreotype of Henry David Thoreau (1817 – 1862).

But Thoreau talked about the Aoelian of the telegraph harp in a way that contrasted the beauty of the sound and the destruction of nature. There was what he called the deep cut: earth, rocks and plants were bulldozed out of the hillside to make room for the railroad tracks. Then, along the tracks, the telegraph line would come. He thought in two ways about the telegraph itself. On the one hand he didn’t like the way the telegraph system was being used in the US in the commerce of slavery and destruction of nature but on the other hand he did listen to it for these aesthetic reasons. And at the level of an Earth magnitude, he thought about how these lines were spreading over the Earth, turning the entire Earth into a big musical instrument. In that way I regard these delicate sounds with Thoreau as being of a different register than the brute force of technology.

Now, Henry David Thoreau taking aesthetic pleasure in the Aeolian effects of the telegraph lines, which were the new media at the time, was something else than what Watson did. Thoreau was listening to the sounds generated on the outside of the line, effectively, whereas Watson was listening to these sounds for pleasure, generated more from the inside of the line. Therefore I had to come up for Watson’s experience with another word instead of the Aeolian, and so I coined the term “Electrosonic”.

If the Aeolian is this sound of nature, music of nature, the sixth aesthetic dimension, this sensing of the environment and the forces and energies of the environment, then the Electrosonic is a sensing of the electromagnetic presence in the same way. These are different registers of energy. But still they are related: Transduction is, in its simplest form, a transformation or conversion of one state of energy into another so that the electromagnetic energy transformed to acoustical energy is sensible to humans.

What I am aiming at in the end with all that is probably that: I am interested in how to reach a dynamic homeostasis in the solar terrestrial environment. And this is not just about life on Earth. It’s also about our relationship to the Sun, our energetic task. It’s the task of understanding energies. I was talking to the poet Cecilia Vicuña, a Chilean poet, who is also an indigenous poet. She was saying that this emphasis on energies is actually an indigenous one as well as the interest in a relationship with the Sun and the seasons. Only one in 4,000 parts of the energy that we’re dealing with on Earth does not come from the Sun. If we think of not just about our existence on Earth but also about the fact that we are in this relationship with this big energy source called the Sun, then it will not just be an electronic relationship, it will be a whole variety of relationships with all types of energies within the heat, magnetic, mechanical, kinetic, the energies, corporeal energies, things like that.

I think necessarily we have to understand that we have to reach this energy balance with our environment and it seems obvious that the best way to do that is to think of this complex array of energies and their even more complex set of interactions. And artists are very good investigators in that respect.