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  • Majella Clarke

Foundations of Sound Culture: A Timeline of Early Audio Technology


To understand the history of sound culture, we go back to the mid 19th Century that saw the 1st industrial revolution. It was roughly defined by a period of technological change between 1760-1830, which saw mechanization change the scale at which economies in Western/Northern Europe and North America grow through the process of mechanized mass production. It changed the structure of society and started the first wave of urbanization, see Craft (1996). Inventions like the Stethoscope (1816),and phonograph provided a new awareness and context of sound and were argued to displace the body through “the technological conversion of sonic vibrations into electrical impulses”, see Morat (2014). Prior to the electronic distribution of sound, sound culture was time and place specific, such as mass in a church, or a symphonic performance in a palace.


The phonautograph was the first instrument to describe movements of a “taut membrane under the influence of sound passing through air”. Edouard-Leon Scott de Martinville has long been recognized as the inventor of the phonautograph using the same principle of recording as Thomas Edison’s phonograph, patented in 1887, see Berliner (2019). In 1870’s both Elisha Grey and Alexander Graham Bell claimed to be the inventor of the telephone, see Hounshell (1976). It used sound to change the way humans can communicate with each other over distances thereby replacing written telegrams. Following the invention of the telephone, were “induction coil audiometers”, or audiometers in 1878 by Arthur Hartmann and commercialized in 1879 by Edward David Hughs, which used the same technology to measure the hearing capacity of the ear, see Morat (2014).


The next technology developments that occurred in the 19th Century carried through to the 20th Century and were focused on the discovery of the radio spectrum and the development of broadcasting capabilities with radio waves. Between 1886-1888 Heinrich Hertz conducted a series of experiments that led to the discovery of the radio spectrum. He made the first antenna and transmitter-receiver radio system (Kraus 1988). Building on this, engineers of the Marconi Company England completed the first long distance radio communication, and reported results observed from various receiving observation stations from far around the world. In addition, Marconi made the interesting observation that transmission was easier from West to East, than from East to West, and that the transmission formula for long distances would need to be altered (Marconi 1922).


While Maconi was content with transmitting morse code through radio transmission, during 1902, Reginald Fessanden was the first to obtain voice through radio transmission, when speaking very clearly into the microphone, he said: “Hello test, one two, three, four. Is it snowing where you are Mr. Thiessen? If it is telegraph back and let me know.” In 1906, Fessenden and his assistants made the world’s first radio broadcast. Fessenden broadcasted a speech he had prepared, as well as selected Christmas music and played Handel’s Largo on the violin (Belrose 2002), and thereby establishing another medium for music and sound to be experienced by humans.


To further enhance a personalized dissemination of music and sound, the phonograph also saw many improvements from its original invention through the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, as did the radio, so that by the 1940s, household from Australia, North America, Western Europe and selected British colonies (e.g. India, West Indies) had easy access to the technologies (LeMahieu, 1982), (Hughes 2002). Music Composers were he most excited with the recording technologies, to quote Sergie Rachmaninoff’s essay The Artist and the Gramophone, see (LeMahieu, 1982):


Yet today he can leave behind him a faithful reproduction of his art, an eloquent and imperishable to his life’s achievement.”


The gramophone and radio broadcasts were technologies that extended the listeners ear. At the same time during the second industrial revolution, microphone and recording technology was evolving alongside telephone, gramophone and radio technology, to improve the clarity and quality of recording music, voice and sound. Microphone technology can be traced back to the carbon microphone invented by David Hughes in 1877 (Nahin & Heaviside 2002). The next big breakthrough in microphone technology came in 1916 when Edward Christopher Wente from Bell Laboratories created the first condenser microphone, see Marsh et al (1979). During the first half of the 20th Century, microphone technologies developed with many options available for broadcasting and recording, including ribbon microphones, Dynamic microphones, ideal for on-stage use, Piezo microphones that use magnetic induction to pick up vibration and hot-wire microphones, (Calvert 2003), (Lee & Lee 2008).


Gramophones allowed people to play what they wanted when they wanted to hear it, unlike radios which promoted their own content. However gramophones were quite bulky pieces of furniture, and as more people entered the middle class, smaller, less bulky on-demand sound and music experiences were of interest to the people. Gramophones quickly evolved into vinyl (disc) records, which dominated the 20th Century as a medium of on demand sound distribution, and are still in use to this day (Osborne 2016). Alongside radios and vinly records, tape technology also evolved. In 1928, Fritz Pfluemer invented the magnetic tape, which completely disrupted broadcasting because it allowed the recording and playback of sound. Allgemeine Elektrizitäts-Gesellschaft AG (AEG) took Pfluemer’s invention further and produced the world’s first magnetophone, which provided the foundation of tape recorders and players (as well as video recorders and players) which evolved throughout the second half of the 20th Century, see Engel et al (2006).


During the second industrial revolution, where electricity was changing the distribution of sound and society experiences music, new possibilities opened up on innovation with respect to musical instruments and musical expression. It was a tumultuous time in music history, with public resistance to new music forms and styles, which are difficult to imagine in today’s circumstances. For examples, the premiere of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring caused a riot in Paris, in the same year, 1913, as the SkandelKonzert in Vienna (featuring compositions by Webern, Schönberg, Berg), experimentalism in the arts was propelled by scientific innovation.

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