Listening to Machines

Main researcher: Stefan Krebs

This project examined how engineers and mechanics listen to sounds of machines. The two case studies encompassed automobile repair and paper production. The project used archival sources and oral history interviews to unravel the listening practices at the shop floor.


The sounds of paper machines and car engines contain important information on their technical state. Engineers and mechanics listen to these sounds to check the proper working of the machinery – a practice we call monitory listening. Once they notice a significant sound that might indicate a technical fault, engineers and mechanics listen in to diagnose the problem – a practice we call diagnostic listening. The project investigated how engineers and mechanics learn and practice these different modes of listening. It further analysed the role listening plays in the self-conception of engineers and mechanics as knowledgeable experts.


cardoctorSimilar to medical doctors’ practice of auscultation (see project 4: listening in the hospital), the techniques of monitory and diagnostic listening have been questioned as more and more diagnostic technologies were introduced since the 1950s. These new diagnostic instruments promised a faster and more reliable diagnosis of technical problems. However, engineers and mechanics continue to listen to machines: they have embodied their collective listening practices as part of their habitus and the use of diagnostic instruments questiones their professional identity as sonic experts.

(Image source: Robert Bosch GmbH Stuttgart, Unternehmensarchiv)

Related Publications:

Krebs, S. (Ed.) (2015). Special Issue on Die Sinnlichkeit der Technik/The Senses and Technology, Technikgeschichte 82:1.

Krebs, S. (2015). Review of “Chasing Sound: Technology, Culture & the Art of Studio Recording from Edison to the LP,” by Susan Schmidt Horning (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013), ISIS 106:1, pp. 206–207.

Krebs, S. (2013). Review of “Sensing Changes. Technologies, Environments, and the Everyday, 1953–2003,” by Joy Parr (Vancouver und Toronto: UBC Press, 2010), Technikgeschichte 80:4, pp. 333–334.

Stefan Krebs (2014), “‘Dial Gauge versus Senses 1–0’: German Car Mechanics and the Introduction of New Diagnostic Equipment, 1950–1980”, in Technology and Culture, vol. 55:2, pp. 354-389.

Stefan Krebs (2012), “‘Sobbing, whining, rumbling’: Listening to Automobiles as Social Practice”, in: Trevor Pinch & Karin Bijsterveld (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Sound Studies, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 79-101.

Krebs, S. (2012). Review of “Vom “Schwachstarktastenkasten” und seinen Fabrikanten: Wissensräume im Klavierbau, 1830 bis 1930,” by Sonja Petersen (Münster et al.: Waxmann Verlag, 2011), ICON. Journal of the International Committee for the History of Technology 18, pp. 265–267.

Stefan Krebs (2012), “Automobilgeräusche als Information. Über das geschulte Ohr des Kfz-Mechanikers”, in: Andi Schoon & Axel Volmar, Das geschulte Ohr: Zur Kulturgeschichte der Sonifikation, Bielefeld: transcript, pp. 95-110.

Stefan Krebs and Melissa van Drie (2014), The Art of Stethoscope Use: Diagnostic Listening Practices of Medical Physicians and “Auto Doctors”, in ICON. Journal of the International Committee for the History of Technology, vol. 20:2, 92–114.

Media Appearances:

Stefan Krebs, interviewed by Holger Schulze (in German) as part of a feature on sound studies research “Abenteuer Klang III: Sound & The Society”, on the German radio station Deutschlandradio Kultur, May 23 2014. Listen.

Stefan Krebs, interviewed (in German) as a part of a feature on the Museum of Endangered Sounds, “Museum für bedrohte Geräusche”, on the Swiss popular science show SRF Wissenschaftsmagazin, March 23 2013. Listen.