The engineer’s wife entered the Senate chamber and walked to the presiding officer’s podium. Turning to face those assembled before her, she began to sing. Her high notes soared to the upper levels of the corner galleries. Then came the applause of an audience composed of her husband and several carpenters.
The year was 1858. This vocal display tested the acoustical properties of the nearly completed new room. Supervising Engineer Montgomery Meigs judged it a success.
Others were not so sure. In January 1859, the Senate’s sixty-six members occupied the chamber for the first time. Within weeks, senators began to complain about their difficulty in hearing floor proceedings. Only the impending Civil War derailed plans for an immediate reconstruction of that space.
With the postwar return of the southern states and the arrival of twenty-two members from states added to the Union by the end of the nineteenth century, the population of the Senate floor expanded to ninety members.
The resulting increase in noise level caused a change in members’ seating patterns. The more senior senators used their rank to claim seats closer to the center aisle along the second and third rows. Whenever an important speech or discussion occurred, senators seated in outlying regions drifted to the center simply to learn what was going on. Hearing proved even more difficult in the galleries for members of the press and public.
In 1949 and 1950, a renovation project gutted the chamber and replaced its glass ceiling and deeply recessed iron walls with the smoother plastered surfaces of today. This drastic redesign did little, however, to alleviate problems of hearing.
An event in 1963 finally compelled the Senate to explore modern methods of voice amplification. That year a Washington Post journalist misunderstood an exchange on the floor between two senators and incorrectly reported that one had called the other a liar.
Anticipating the current system, which began operation on January 25, 1971, Republican Leader Everett Dirksen justified the added expense in the interest of providing equal treatment for all senators. “As one grows older,” said the honey-throated Dirksen, “his vocal chords lose a little of their dynamite—a little of their resonance. The voice becomes thin, sometimes a little squeaky. Well, even a squeaky voice—or a thin, piping treble—is entitled to be heard on the floor, as well as a resounding bass.”
Mrs. Meigs surely would have agreed.