Christoph Borbach – From Material to Sonic Soundings. Alexander Behm and the Temporalization of the Submarine Space in the Early 20th Century

Alexander Behm was a German pioneer of echolocation and originator of the German term Echolot. What his patents from the years 1913-1920 show is the acknowledgement of the need to involve time as critical parameter in the measurement of ocean depths – what culminated in the later measurements of submarine distances known as active sonar (originally an acronym for Sonic, Azimuth and Range). What the term echo sounding in general implies is a different understanding of the term ‘sounding’ than in the centuries before. Although the term ‘sounding’ implies an etymological closeness to the term ‘sound’ it initially described the mapping of the ocean floor with material means.

There are many different readings of the term ‘sounding’. In the Anthropocene, especially in the early 20th century, we see a tendency to dematerialize and temporalize submarine distance measurements (if we ignore for a moment the material side of sound which is evident at least since Léon Scott’s phonautograph from 1857 and its indexical sound graphs). This goes hand in hand with the advent of communication technology in favor of concrete transmitters and receivers what can be seen and proved with the Fessenden oscillator – an echo ranger and underwater telegraph. But in contrast to any communication technologies, the measurement of distances on a sonic basis is the operationalization of delay time (Δt), a temporal reading of the Aristotelian ‘to metaxy’. The channel (itself a term that is closely intertwined with the maritime) went from being a passive figure to the condition of information, caused by its physical property to delay momenta and signals in time (the well-known delay lines like William Percival’s indirect time delay path [1938] reversed these parameter of time and space and realized thereby volatile memory units).

Thus, via the ‘channelization of space’ [Shiga 2015] delay time became the precise parameter of space as the basal mathematical formula of echolocation shows it: r = c/2 x Δt. So here we see a non-linear progress from material to sonic soundings on a time critical basis – an operationalization of sound contrary to the hitherto existing concept of sound that also allows us a new and literal reading of the term sounding.

Christoph Borbach researches the history of sonic distance measurements as part of the operationalization of delay time. His bachelor thesis dealt with radio theories between ideology and media epistemology, his master thesis with technical implementations of physical echoes. His research interests include: media theory of speech synthesis, media archaeology of active sonar, occult media in the 19th century.

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