Cone of Silence

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
For the British aviation drama film, see Cone of Silence (1960 film).
Cone of Silence from Episode 1 ("Mr. Big", 1965) of Get Smart

The Cone of Silence is one of many recurring joke devices from Get Smart, an American comedy television series of the 1960s about an inept spy. The essence of the joke is that the apparatus, designed for secret conversations, makes it impossible for those inside the device - and easy for those outside the device - to hear the conversation. The end result being neither secret nor communication.

In popular culture, "cone of silence" is a slang phrase meaning that the speaker wishes to keep the indicated information secret and that the conversation should not be repeated to anyone not currently present. For example: "We aren't inviting Cindy and her boyfriend to the movies because they embarrass us, but keep that in the cone of silence."


Although Get Smart popularized the term, the "Cone of Silence" actually originated on the syndicated TV show Science Fiction Theatre in an episode titled "Barrier of Silence" written by Lou Huston and first airing September 3, 1955, 10 years ahead of the NBC comedy.[1] The story focused on finding a cure for Professor Richard Sheldon, who had been returned to the United States in a confused, altered state of mind after abduction by enemy agents while visiting Milan.[2] Scientists discovered that placing Sheldon in an environment of total silence was the means of brainwashing, a precursor to later ideas of sensory deprivation, celebrated in such films as Altered States and sundry spy thrillers. He was placed on a chair in the "Cone of Silence" which consisted of a raised circular platform suspended by three wires tied to a common vertex. Although the cone's surface was open, noise canceling sound generators located just below the vertex would shroud anyone sitting inside in a complete silence impossible in natural surroundings.[3] It was also demonstrated that anyone speaking inside the cone could not be heard outside, which was the feature later parodied in Get Smart. Only a speculative, "science fiction" possibility at that time, such technology is now commonplace in active noise canceling electronics for personal and industrial use.

The concept had been explored in Arthur C. Clarke's 1950 short story "Silence Please", which features a device capable of cancelling sound waves.[4]

In Frank Herbert's science fiction novel Dune—first serialized in Analog from 1963 to 1965 and then published independently in August 1965—the Baron Harkonnen employs a "cone of silence" when having a private discussion with Count Fenring. In the novel's glossary, Herbert describes the device as the sound-deadening "field of a distorter that limits the carrying power of the voice or any other vibrator by damping the vibrations with an image-vibration 180 degrees out of phase."[5] Used for privacy, the field does not visually obscure lip movement.[6] Herbert had previously mentioned the cone of silence, on a much smaller scale, in his 1955 short story "Cease Fire." [7]

The larger, plastic version of the "Cone of Silence", appeared in the pilot episode of Get Smart, entitled "Mr. Big", which aired on September 18, 1965. Mel Brooks and Buck Henry, the original screenwriters for the series, devised many of the running jokes. Henry either borrowed or independently came up with the Cone of Silence concept, which debuted in the pilot along with other show standards, like Fang, the improperly trained dog-agent, and Max's shoe phone. The Cone of Silence scene was shot ahead of the rest of the pilot episode, and was used to sell the series to NBC.[citation needed]

A 1968 episode of Mission: Impossible featured an inverted cone of silence (outside sounds were blocked and replaced).[8] A government official attending a theater play hears subversive dialogue in place of the original lines, and the playwright is jailed for subversion.

Cones of Silence appear in The Nude Bomb (1980), the first attempt at a theatrical Get Smart movie. Max, the Chief, and the delegates all have their own cone placed over them. Neither the characters nor the audience hear what is being said. In the later sequel movie, Get Smart, Again! (1989), when Maxwell is reactivated as a secret agent, he insists on following protocol to ensure secrecy by using the Cone of Silence. However, the device is considered to be completely outdated (however Max and 99 still have one at home), and the current methods used were the following:

  • Hover Cover: The participants converse on the roof of a building while helicopters hover nearby, drowning out all sounds with their rotor blades, thereby preventing anyone from eavesdropping. However, this also prevents those involved from hearing their own words and the intense winds caused by the helicopter's blades throws the participants about.
  • Hall of Hush: A chamber with sound-suppressing walls that allow a person's words to appear in front of him like subtitles in a movie. The problem with this device is that the words do not disappear and will eventually fill up the chamber, smothering the speakers in their own dialogues.

A new version of the Cone of Silence appears in the 2008 Get Smart film. One of the early versions of the Cone used in the television series is on display in the CONTROL museum seen in the beginning of the film. The new version has an appearance more consistent with the cones of silence used in The Nude Bomb than in the television series. It was apparently constructed by the lab guys Bruce and Lloyd, and was untested at the time it was used. It seems much more high-tech, being a small handheld device which, when the button is pressed, creates a cone-shaped beam of light shining down from the ceiling, forming a force field around the person highlighted. This field ought to block all exterior sound, making external communication all but impossible. However, as usual, this updated version is ineffective. The force field was shown to be solid, though, to the point where a panicking Larrabee found he could not escape, to the cause of his greater panic. When Max himself attempts to use the device to hide his glee at being named field agent, it malfunctions and does not even raise the field, permitting everybody to hear his embarrassing shouts. However, in fairness to the manufacturers, this was because Max didn't push the button hard enough.

Variations within the show[edit]

Throughout the five seasons of Get Smart, the Cone of Silence appears many times. For security reasons, Maxwell Smart insists upon using it to discuss his case. Despite this, it is always defective in some way; for example:

  • During the first episode of the show, the Cone of Silence is lowered. Once it's in place, Max and the Chief can barely hear each other. The frustrated Chief then asks Hodgkins (a CONTROL scientist) to raise it, but Hodgkins can't hear him either.
  • The Cone of Silence produces a very strong echo that gives both characters a headache.
  • In perhaps one of the most comical moments involving the Cone of Silence, the Chief and Max can't hear each other. Hodgkins, outside the Cone, can hear them perfectly and acts as a relay between the two.
  • After the Cone of Silence is lowered, it randomly raises and lowers. As Max and the Chief stand and sit to accommodate it, the Cone finally goes so low that it breaks through the Chief's desk, forcing them both to sit on the floor.
  • In an episode where Max is asked to investigate KAOS headquarters, the Chief asks him what he found out, he once again insists upon the Cone of Silence, and the Chief reluctantly agrees. When it is lowered Max says he found out nothing, leaving the Chief highly frustrated. This is one of the few occasions where the Cone of Silence itself did not malfunction. Instead, its use was completely unnecessary.
  • Another episode involves Max and the Chief using cards with words written on them to communicate. Max made a mistake at one point: The card that reads 99 was upside-down. The Chief responds with "Who is 66?"
  • Max insists on lowering the cone of silence to discuss something top secret. Once lowered, he asks the Chief to borrow twenty dollars, frustrating the Chief. When the Chief says that he can't believe that, Max says "Would you believe, thirty dollars". After the Chief insists on raising it, Max reveals that the controls are on the outside, and when slipping out of it, 99 rings the doorbell, and Max forgets about the Chief, who is yelling and gesticulating – inaudibly, within the Cone.

Related gadgets[edit]

Closet of Silence[edit]

In one episode, when the Cone of Silence is not working, Max insists on using the Closet of Silence. In the Closet, there are so many coats and jackets, they can barely hear each other, and cannot get out of the Closet, so Max shoots the lock off, injuring Larabee in the process.

Portable Cone of Silence[edit]

In one episode, when Max and Chief are not in the office, Max brings along a portable Cone of Silence for them to use. This Cone seems to work, as the two can hear each other perfectly. Of course, the audience can hear them too. This cone apparently obscured the Chief's vision, and echoed violently when struck. When they try to take them off, Max succeeds but has to help the chief get his off. He uses his shoe and the butt of his gun, but the Chief finally breaks out after falling off a stage.

Umbrella of Silence[edit]

In one episode, Max, 99 and Chief go to England where they meet the Chief of English CONTROL, who has an Umbrella of Silence which can fit more people in, but the disadvantage is that since the Chief of English CONTROL smokes a lot, he intolerably pollutes the air inside.

Other uses[edit]

The term cone of silence is also used when people are overtly zealous in trying to keep a secret: here the term usually refers to the fact that the "outsider" can see something is there, but is unable to find out exactly what.[citation needed]

The term cone of silence has been adopted in pop culture for any system that prevents eavesdropping, usually by creating a private or encrypted link between the clients. VPNs (Virtual Private Networks) are a good example, as is any form of encrypted or hidden instant messaging.[citation needed]

The term cone of silence has been adopted in online chat rooms[citation needed] as a method by which troublesome trolls are excluded from conversations. The shorthand term "COS" is invoked whenever a troll appears warning "regulars" not to engage the troll or encourage their behavior.

Cone of silence was the name given by Stanford University students at Synergy House for their method of muting the morning crows of the roosters in their chicken coop at the campus residence; it consisted of a wooden pyramid inside the coop into which the roosters were individually placed after dark and removed from in the morning.[9]

Technical and transportation[edit]

The term is originally from a 1930s airplane instrument navigation system, the AN (or "four-course") range. Flying along the range and listening to the signal, the pilot knew he was over the transmitter and therefore at the only uniquely knowable point when the sound died. This region over the transmitter was known as the "cone of silence." This inverted instrument, signaling as it did the desired point by loss of sound, may have been Brooks' inspiration for the comic effect.

The term was later used in radar technology. As the radar beam projects outward, a volume in the shape of an inverted cone is created above the radar station where objects cannot be detected by the radar operator. This is known as the cone of silence.

The Cone Of Silence is also a Reichel-Pugh designed "Super 30" sailboat which has raced extensively in Australia and North America.[10]

Literature and music[edit]

Cone of Silence is also a music piece by Matt Ragan. It appears in the video game Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit 2.

The Cone of Silence is also the name of a song by Yo La Tengo on the album Ride the Tiger.

"Cone of Silence" is the second book written by Michael Sloan. It is a political thriller that takes place in Southern Massachusetts.

"Cone of Silence" is an album released by Druhb on Geometrik Records (2002).[11]

Cinema and television[edit]

Cone of Silence is a British aviation drama film made in 1960 and directed by Charles Frend.

The term "cone of silence" was used in one episode of Everybody Loves Raymond (Boy's Therapy), by Frank Barone (Peter Boyle), after his wife Marie (Doris Roberts) said that she couldn't wait to talk more about his therapy session that he just got back from, Frank told her that he needed a "cone of silence" whenever he felt bad Frank coming on.

The term "cone of silence" was used in the 1996 movie Twister, though used inaccurately during the events of the scene.

The term was used twice on the show Gilmore Girls. First (season 1, episode 15) Christopher says "Employ six individual cones of silence." [12] Second (season 6, episode 7) Lorelai says "Now, just give me a minute to concentrate. Cone of silence, please."[13]

The term was also used in the 2009 comedy I Love You, Man, when Sydney Fife (Jason Segel) asks his new friend Peter Klaven (Paul Rudd) to consider his "man cave" to have a "cone of silence" and that Sydney would not reveal to anyone anything Peter said in the room.

Jurisprudence and politics[edit]

Cone of Silence is used as a metaphor for a lawyer's response to successive representation conflicts of interest by the court in Nemours Foundation v. Gilbane.

The term "cone of silence" was also used in the Civil Forum on the Presidency on August 16, 2008. Host Rick Warren stated, "Now, Senator Obama is going to go first. We flipped a coin, and we have safely placed Senator McCain in a cone of silence."[14] In fact, however, McCain did not even arrive at the church until nearly half an hour later.[14] A minor controversy arose over the question of whether McCain had actually been able to hear Obama's answers to Warren's questions.[15][16] One journalist dubbed the controversy "Cone-of-Silence-Gate".[17] Some commentators noted the irony that the hypothetical "cone of silence" at the forum may have worked no better than its Get Smart namesake.[18][19][20][21]


Andrew Marsh, CEO of Fifth Column Games, has developed a system so that employees can work without being interrupted. By placing a "cone of silence" on their desks, employees conveys that they should not be disturbed except in an emergency situation.[22]


In meteorology, particularly in the United States, the "cone of silence" refers to the broad, cone-shaped area above a particular weather radar station in which the device does not scan. NEXRAD radars make two-dimensional scans at varying angles ranging from 0.5° above level to 19.5° above level (during a significant weather event). These levels become much closer to the ground, and closer to each other, as they get closer to the radar site, rendering them of little use for the three-dimensional profiling such multi-level scanning is meant to provide. Thus, a weather event located very close to and/or directly overhead of the radar site will be mostly situated in the "cone of silence." This is part of the reason why most U.S. weather radars partially overlap each other's territories.[23]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "CTVA US Sci-Fi - "Science Fiction Theatre" (ZIV/Syndicated) Season 1 (1955-56)". 
  2. ^ "Science Fiction Theatre - Season 1, Episode 19: Barrier of Silence -". CBS Interactive. 
  3. ^ classicworld. "Science Fiction Theatre 19 Barrier Of Silence - Video Dailymotion". Dailymotion. 
  4. ^ ""Silence Please" by Arthur C. Clarke". Wordpress. Retrieved 11 December 2013. 
  5. ^ Herbert, Frank (1965). "Terminology of the Imperium". Dune. 
  6. ^ Herbert, Frank (1965). Dune. 
  7. ^
  8. ^ "The Play". Mission: Impossible. Season 3. Episode 9. December 8, 1968. 2:49 minutes in. CBS. 
  9. ^ "Synpaedia - Main / Synergy History". 
  10. ^ Scuttlebutt: Transpac, describing the Cone of Silence performance in trans-Pacific race.
  11. ^ "druhb ficha". 
  12. ^ "Gilmore Girls 1x15 transcript". 
  13. ^ "Gilmore Girls 6x7 transcript". 
  14. ^ a b Brusk, Steve; Dana Bash; Mike Roselli (August 17, 2008). "Warren: McCain did not violate 'cone of silence'". CNN. Retrieved 2008-08-18. 
  15. ^ "'Meet the Press' transcript for August 17, 2008". Transcript. August 17, 2008. Retrieved 2008-08-18. 
  16. ^ Seelye, Katharine Q. (August 18, 2008). "Despite Assurances, McCain Wasn't in a 'Cone of Silence'". The New York Times. pp. A12. 
  17. ^ Tapper, Jake (August 18, 2008). "Saddleback Spokesman on Cone-of-Silence-Gate". ABC News. Retrieved 2008-08-17. 
  18. ^ Cupples, Deb (2008-08-18). "Did McCain Violate the "Cone of Silence"? Most Americans Don't Care -- and Neither Should our Media". Buck Naked Politics. Retrieved 2008-08-20. 
  19. ^ Spencer, Libby (2008-08-18). "McCain cheated on 'cone of silence'". Newshoggers. Retrieved 2008-08-20. 
  20. ^ "Angela" (2008-08-18). "The "Cone of Silence": More McCain lies.". From the Office of the Principal. Retrieved 2008-08-20. 
  21. ^ Hauslaib, David (2008-08-18). "Cone of Silence Not Respected During Debates: Controversy Erupts over McCain Escaping Non-Existent Device". Archived from the original on September 15, 2008. Retrieved 2008-08-20. 
  22. ^ "6 Productivity Tricks You Can Learn From CEOs". 
  23. ^ "National Doppler Radar Sites". 

External links[edit]