What is a Megaphone?

Malcolm Tatum

Also known as a bullhorn, blowhorn, or a speaking trumpet, a megaphone is a handheld device that makes it possible to amplify the human voice by directing it in a specific direction. With an origin that is often traced back to the 17th century, a traditional megaphone is in the shape of a cone, and is constructed of lightweight materials that allow the user to hold the blowhorn to the mouth with relative ease. Both the traditional and electronic versions of the device are in common use today, often at sporting and entertainment events, as well as at political rallies. Law enforcement officials and some fire departments also often use the blowhorn as part of their emergency equipment.

College cheerleaders often use megaphones to amplify their cheers.
College cheerleaders often use megaphones to amplify their cheers.

A traditional megaphone is a simple design that is unencumbered with any type of electronic gadgetry to help amplify the voice. These acoustical models rely on the shape and the choice of materials to amplify sound, and direct the voice within a given direction. The body of the megaphone is shaped like a cone, with an opening at the smaller end that is held directly in front of the speaker’s mouth. Sound travels through the body of the device, and emerges at the larger end of the cone. A simple handle made it possible to use one hand to move the body of the device into position. While traditional bullhorns of this type were once made using metal components, many today are made using a combination of metal, plastic and even various types of wood fibers.

Demonstrators may use a megaphone to get their point across.
Demonstrators may use a megaphone to get their point across.

The acoustic megaphone was for many years a staple with various types of stage productions, especially during the early 20th century. Vaudeville performers often relied on the megaphone when singing to larger audiences. Narrators and comedians also utilized the device for a number of years, until microphone technology and the installation of sound systems in clubs and theaters became more common. Many politicians would use this type of sound trumpet when holding outdoor rallies during campaigns, while policemen often used the device to communicate with suspects who had barricaded themselves within a structure, refusing to surrender to law enforcement officials.

Over time, electronic technology was used to enhance the function of the basic megaphone. Circuitry within the device allows users to adjust the volume and modulation of the voice, using either a keypad or a set of switches located on the side of the device. Today, law enforcement officials, politicians, and others who make use of this type of sound amplification equipment will use the electronic version rather than the traditional acoustical megaphone. However, the older version is still in common use at school events like pep rallies and cheerleading during a sporting event.

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