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Why silence is a luxury — and why companies seek to capture it

How everyone from Caesar to your next door neighbor has tried to fix a noisy world.

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We live in a noisy world. Even in the quietest of spaces, there’s still the blowing of the wind, the humming of the air conditioner, the chirping of a bird. We’ve been trying to get some peace and quiet in our environments for thousands of years. It’s no wonder that the word noise comes from the Latin word nausea, emanating a sense of discomfort and queasiness. In fact, recent studies have found that noise exposure is linked to hypertension, higher cholesterol, and hearing problems, as well as impaired reading comprehension and long-term memory in children. So what have we done to reduce sound? From regulating its pervasiveness in our neighborhoods to manufacturing soundproof tools, it’s remained a dilemma for the ages.

We’ve passed laws to limit the noises that interrupt our daily lives.

The legalese around noise complaints traces back to about 60 BCE when the council of Sybaris, a Greek colony, passed the first-ever noise ordinance. Potters, tinsmiths, and tradesmen were ordered to live outside the city walls because of the noise they made in their day-to-day work. The ordinance even outlawed roosters. Some two decades later, Julius Caesar ruled that wagons could no longer be driven through suburban streets “before the tenth hour of the day.”

English law embraced the idea of nuisance under Henry II, and in 1378 the first recorded noise complaint came in: neighbors annoyed with the loud sounds made by a local armorer. In some Catholic countries, even church bells were regulated. Parish churches could only ring their bells after the most senior churches did, and monasteries were limited to a single, much quieter bell. With more urbanization came more machinery, traffic, and nightlife and more opportunity to regulate the sounds of growing cities.

The fight against noise continued through the 20th century, all across the globe. In New York City, Julia Barnett Rice founded the Society for the Suppression of Unnecessary Noise to be rid of “one of the greatest banes of city life.” Sure enough, the group used its most affluent and political members as connections — with Mark Twain serving as spokesman — to establish quiet zones around hospitals and schools. Rulebreakers were fined or jailed.

Decades later, governments began treating noise as environmental pollution. In 1971, New York’s Department of Environmental Protection drove around a noise-measuring van emblazoned with “nasty noise makes you nervous & nasty.” Unnecessary horn honking was made a criminal offense, radios were banned on the subway, and ice cream truck bells were limited to ringing for only 10 seconds every 10 minutes.

Engineers tweaked consumer products to minimize sound and create “high-quality” goods.

These days, many of us can’t live without products like noise-cancelling headphones. It’s because the most pervasive roots of noise, like roads and factory-based industries, haven’t really been addressed. And the legislation we’ve passed often targets low-income communities rather than the infrastructure of our cities. Living in a louder world — whether physically, in urban and industrial settings, or mentally, through the constant barrage of technology and media — has made silence a luxury. The population willing to pay for moments of quiet has caught on to the “back-to-basics, purity-as-priority impulse” to buy silence.

The establishment of the decibel as a unit of sound in 1929 allowed scientists and innovators to measure noise, which led to the desire for tools to eliminate noise. That’s where the tech consumer industry came in, building products that people could buy to create their own quiet spaces. The early 20th century saw the advent of sound-muffling curtains, soft floor materials, and noise ventilators, and even a lead helmet with eye holes connected to an oxygen tank, called The Isolator.

Today, the saying that “silence is golden” continues to ring true. Companies thrive on the creation of high-quality products like silent car engines and quiet copy machines. In fact, 3M uses its anechoic chamber to test tape recorders and large copiers, setting up microphones to measure the noises emitted by various parts of the machine. “You go into a hotel room, and the air conditioner makes a lot of noise,” 3M corporate scientist Tom Hanschen says. “What does that tell you? It’s cheap. Quietness is a sign of quality.”

These days, scientists continue using this room to study how sound waves move so they can build the sound-dampening products we use every day. How does it work? Watch the video above.