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A Brief Look at the History of Audio

Updated on March 23, 2015

Edison and Alexander

In the summer of 1877, Thomas Edison was working on a machine that would transcribe telegraphic messages through indentations on paper tape. They could later be sent over the telegraph repeatedly. This gave Edison the idea that a telephone message could also be recorded in a similar fashion. He experimented with a diaphragm that had an embossing point and was pushed against a fast-moving paraffin paper. As he spoke, the vibrations of his voice made indentations into the paper. The final product had two of these diaphragm-and-needle units, so that it could record, and also play what has been recorded. The first words he ever spoke into it was the nursery rhyme, “Mary had a Little Lamb”. He was amazed when the machine played the words back to him. When he showed it to the Scientific American offices in New York, he simply placed the machine on the table and had it introduce itself. The phonograph was the first machine that could both record, and replay the recordings. This was revolutionary! The fact that you could record any sounds into it, and play it later was something that had simply never been seen. Let alone even thought of. They thought that with the phonograph they would be able to do a lot of new things. Things like writing letters without a stenographer, Phonographic books for the blind, reproduction of music, for family records such as deathbed wills and last words of dying people, music boxes and toys, clocks that would announce what you should be doing at this moment, and also with connection to the telephone. There were so many thought out uses for the machine. But like a lot of inventions, the public eye stopped seeing the novelty of the invention. So, he stopped working on it for a while and decided to focus his work on the light bulb.

Alexander Graham Bell and his cousin Chichester A. Bell decided to pick up where Edison had left off with the phonograph. They just made some overall improvements to the sturdiness of the machine, as well as it’s recording and play quality. After Edison finished the light bulb, they approached him to discuss a collaboration on the machine. But Edison refused them and was determined to improve the phonograph on his own. He initially made pretty much the same improvements they did. When he finished it, it was called the “New Phonograph”. Companies started renting the phonographs as office dictating machines. Edison’s phonograph company started producing the first talking dolls in 1890. After the dolls, they started production of coin-slot phonographs which companies started to use. These were the very first In 1896, Edison announced the Spring Motor Phonograph, followed by the Edison Home Phonograph. At this point, the prices of the phonographs had gone down drastically. In the early days of the phonograph they costed one hundred and fifty dollars. But at this point, he was selling them for twenty dollars. This made the phonograph something that people could actually afford to have in their homes, which is a HUGE deal for creating overall public interest in the product.

Big Improvements

Other companies that made replacement cylinders for the phonographs started to produce discs instead. This lead to the manufacturing of the Edison Disc Phonograph. Which is more similar to a record player in the style that it plays and looks. Edison did not want to move on to using discs instead of cylinders, because the cylinders were better quality, and more technological. The reason the discs were able to take over, was because you could mass produce them a lot faster than cylinders. Discs could be stamped out by machines, whereas cylinders could not. Discs also took less space to store the sounds than the cylinders, making them much more economical for In 1892, Berliner began production of disc records and gramophones(talking machines). His gramophone record was the first disc to be offered to the public. They played and operated much like record players we know of today, but were much smaller in size and had poor sound quality. Eldridge R Johnson worked with the discs to improve them to the point where their sound quality was as good as Edison’s cylinders. By 1901, ten inch records were marketed which stored more and had better quality. By 1908, the majority of the people started to demand the production of double sided disc recordings, leaving cylinders in the dust. Edison saw that the discs were superior to the cylinders finally, and in 1912, decided to push production of disc records. They were known as the Edison Disc Records.

In 1940, sound reproduction was done with magnetic tape. It was known as “reel to reel”. It had better sound quality and was nicer than the vinyl discs, but threading the rape into the recorders and players was much more difficult that simply putting a disc onto phonograph player. In 1956, the invention of the 4-track tapes and players came. These had superior sound quality to records, and were more compact, and unlike the reel-to-reel, you didn’t have to thread any tape. Soon after the 4 track came around, the 8-track was unveiled. When these came around, you began to see less and less vinyl and more and more tapes. Tapes had HUGE commercial success soon after they were released, because the automobile industry was starting to implement the technology into their vehicles allowing people to play the tapes that they owned inside of their car. This was huge! By 1967, all of Ford’s vehicles offered this tape tape player upgrade option. Though they had problems, they gained steady popularity because of their convenience and portability. In 1966, home players were introduced that allowed the consumers to play tapes between their homes and their portable systems. Portable boomboxes were also very popular with 8 track owners.

The decline of the popularity and sales of 8-track tapes and players came after the cassette tape(invented in 1962) had been improved enough to surpass the technology of the 8-tracks. The cassettes were very popular due to their smaller size, and rewinding capability. However, they had disadvantages to the 8-track format. The tape speed was half that of 8-tracks, producing lower sound quality. It also required greater mechanical complexity in it’s players. However, constant development of the cassette turned it into a widespread medium and lowered the cost and complexity. This as well as the 8-tracks deficiencies, led to the 8 tracks demise. In most western countries, the market for cassettes had declined sharply since they peaked in the late 1980’s, whose sales were overtaken by Compact Discs during the early 1990’s. By 1993, CD players were being shipped as much as 5 million a year, while cassette players only shipped 3.4 million. By 2001, cassettes were so unpopular that they were only accounted for 4% of all music sold. By 2002, and 2003, they were discontinued by most major U.S. music companies. Compact discs are still used today for music. Almost all the current cars today are equipped with a standard car stereo system which includes a CD player. CDs also allowed people with computers to insert their audio CDs into their computers CD drive to copy the music onto their computers hard drive to be played with music player.

Rapid Advancement

In 1999 the music world was forever changed with the invention of Napster. Napster was a peer to peer filesharing internet service that emphasized sharing audio files that were typically digitally encoded music as MP3 format files. Napster allowed anyone with the internet and a computer, to share and download music from anybody else using the service. This meant that anybody who owned a cd, could put it up on napster, allowing anybody to get the music free of charge. This was used by many people to obtain free music. Everybody was downloading music for free on the internet. The problem with napster was that it was illegal. The company ran into huge legal difficulties over copyright infringement, ceased operations, and was eventually bought In 2001, the iPod was released by Apple. The iPod was and still is an ultra portable digital music player than stores mass amounts of music for playback wherever and whenever. Other digital music players had already been invented before the iPod, but none of them could match the user friendliness of the iPod, and the incredible design and size. Audio files can be added to your iPod as well as removed from it using iTunes, which is Apples music player for the computer. In 2003, apple introduced the iTunes Store. This led to the sales of digital media over the internet to the scale they are today. Nearly all music today is purchased and downloaded from a computer, and nearly all music played is through a computer or an iPod. I look back at the invention of the Edison Cylinder phonograph, and am amazed by how far we have come since then. We took the recording of sound from being huge, clunky, and unaffordable, to being something we can do at any time, over thin air. Music used to be such a luxury, that you had to pay large amounts of money to see somebody perform it. Only the richest of people were able to own music players in their homes. Now it’s hard to find somebody in our society who doesn’t have something close to the latest technology. This effects our lives in ways we don’t even realize. It puzzles me that music can travel through the thin air using things like wifi. I appreciate the technology for music in my society, and am excited for the future and what lies ahead!

Works Cited


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      3 years ago

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