Cone of Silence

Cone of Silence

The Cone of Silence is one of many recurring joke devices from Get Smart, an American comedy television series of the 1960s.

Invented by "Professor Cone", the device is designed to protect the most secret of conversations (aka "C.O.S. security risks") by enshrouding its users within a transparent sound-proof shield. Unfortunately, Control had purchased the device from a "discount place" rather than the federal government, so it has never worked properly. Naturally, this frustrating situation provides fuel for comedy.

Whenever Maxwell Smart ("Agent 86") wants to speak to his boss ("Chief") about a top secret matter, "86" would insist on using the comically defective technology despite being reminded that it never works. The Chief, usually with annoyed skepticism, would press a switch, causing the device to descend from above his desk, surrounding the heads of the two would-be conversers. The awkwardly impractical device appears to be constructed of clear plastic in the shape of a large oblong box with two interconnected inverted bowls on top.

Part of the humor is in the irony that Agent 86 and Chief cannot hear each other clearly, while bystanders outside the Cone of Silence can hear everything they say as well as speak to them. Sometimes the bystander would even act as a relay so that Chief and "86" inside the device could communicate. Often at the end of the labored conversation, Chief would become terribly frustrated and upset as it quickly becomes clear that the Cone of Silence is (as expected) completely useless.

Variations on the Cone included a portable version, made of two globes for the participants' heads connected by a tube; the "Umbrella of Silence", which supported up to four people, and the "Closet of Silence," into which two people were uncomfortably squeezed. In one occasion where the Cone wasn't even available, Smart convinced the Chief to use the (more efficient) "Coughing Code", where both parties communicate through strategic coughing, despite the Chief's claims that the Coughing Code wasn't used for years due to "too many agents giving each other the flu".


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. 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. Scientists discovered that placing Professor 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 3 wires tied to a common vertex. Although the cone's surface was open, noise cancelling sound generators located just below the vertex would shroud anyone sitting inside in a complete silence impossible in natural surroundings. Only a speculative possibility at that time (and so science fiction), such technology is now commonplace in Active Noise Cancelling electronics for personal and industrial use. It was also demonstrated that anyone speaking inside the cone, could not be heard outside­, the feature later used in Get Smart.

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

The larger, plastic version of the "Cone of Silence", appeared in the pilot episode of Get Smart, entitled Mr. Big, aired on Sep. 18 1965. Mel Brooks and Buck Henry, the original scriptwriters 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.

Cones of Silence appear in The Nude Bomb, 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!, 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 seems much more high-tech, taking the form of a cone-shaped beam of light shining down from the ceiling, which creates 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. 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.

Variations within the show

Throughout the five seasons of Get Smart, the cone of silence appears many times, each time its use is insisted upon comically and pedantically by Maxwell Smart and each time it is defective in a certain way. Below are a list of scenes containing the cone of silence (More to be added).

1. During the first episode of the show the Cone of Silence is lowered for the first time, the Chief asks Hodgkins (a scientist working at Control) to lower the Cone of Silence, when lowered Max and the Chief can barely hear each other, the Chief becomes frustrated and asks Hodgkins to raise the Cone of Silence, adding to the laughter Hodgkins can't hear the Chief well either.

2. The Cone of Silence produces a very strong echo that gives both characters a headache.

3. In perhaps one of the most comical moments involving the Cone of Silence, the Chief and Max can't hear each other. However Hodgkins on the outside can hear them perfectly and acts as a relay between the Chief and Max.

4. 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, which the Chief reluctantly agrees. When it is lowered Max says he found out nothing, leaving the Chief highly frustrated. This is one of the very few occasions the Cone of Silence itself hasn't malfunctioned, however its use is completely unnecessary.

Other uses

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.

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.

The term cone of silence has been adopted by online chat room aficionados as a method by which troublesome chatters (trolls) are excluded from online conversations. The shorthand term "COS" is invoked whenever one of the designated trolls appears, warning the "regulars" that it is inadvisable to engage the troll on any level and thus encourage his behavior.

Technical and transportation

The term is originally from a 1930's 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..

Literature and music

A "cone of silence" is mentioned in the futuristic SF novel Dune, when Baron Harkonnen is having a private discussion with Count Fenring on Giedi Prime.

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.

Cinema and television

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.

Jurisprudence and politics

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." In fact, however, McCain did not even arrive at the church until nearly half an hour later. A minor controversy arose over the question of whether McCain had actually been able to hear Obama's answers to Warren's questions. One journalist dubbed the controversy "Cone-of-Silence-Gate". Some commentators noted the irony that the hypothetical "cone of silence" at the forum may have worked no better than its Get Smart namesake.

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