Posted on 24/4/2016

Innovation from history: Music technology

We take a look at some of the inventions which changed the way we listen to music.

Invention of the gramophone

Records, used to record sound, were invented in 1877 by Thomas Edison. He invented the first machine to record and play back sounds, known as the phonograph. Early records were cylindrical, but flat disks soon replaced them.

Edison’s first phonograph used tin-covered cylinders to record vibrations of sound that were focused by a horn-like device onto a diaphragm; the diaphragm vibrated and transmitted the vibrations to a needle, which etched onto a rotating cylinder covered with tin foil. The sound could then be played back from the etched cylinder as a needle went along the groove and reversed the process, making the diaphragm vibrate, recreating the original sound.

The very first recording made my Edison was of him saying, “Mary had a little lamb.” The recording cylinders were improved by Charles Sumner Tainter who made them out of wax.

The first flat, circular record was invented by Emile Berliner in 1887. Berliner’s records were originally made of glass, then zinc, and later, hard rubber. Berliner was the founder of Deutsche Grammophon and Britain’s Gramophone Co. Ltd.

By 1915, records rotated at a standard 78-rpm (rotations per minute) and were made of shellac. They were 10 inches in diameter and had the potential to record four minutes of sound. The long-playing record (the LP) was invented in 1948 by Columbia Records – it played at 33-rpm and was 10 or 12 inches in diameter. The LP was made from flexible plastic vinyl. Using new microgrooves, these records recorded over 20 minutes of sound.

Invention of the CD player

Sony was the technology giant who released the world’s first CD player in October 1982. This was the first of its kind audio device which had a slide-out tray design for the CD. Nobuyuki Idei, the Chairman and Group Chief Executive Officer of Sony Corporation named the system the CDP-101. He worked relentlessly to launch the CD player system and had based the model name on the numerals 101, since in binary numbers, 0101 represents the number five. It is believed that Idei chose the number five, since he wanted to indicate that the product was of a medium class.

The first CD player was priced on the shelves at a whopping $900 in the USA, which now seems like a huge amount to pay, considering the retail price of the CD players on sale today. The invention of the CD and the discovery of the CD player are considered to be huge milestones in the field of digital sound and music industry.

Now in 2015, we have moved on to iPods and Mp4 players, but the invention of the compact disc players was the pioneering step, which led to further developments in digital sound technology.

Invention of the cassette tape

The first cassette tape was produced in 1958 by RCA Victor. It was 5” x 7”, however it never took off, failing to gain popularity. The cassette tape was invented for a number of reasons; the main reason was that it offered an easier, more compact way than the reel-to-reel tapes that had been used up until the 1960’s.

A final version of the Compact Cassette arrived in 1964 by Phillips. In just two years, over 250,000 recorders were sold in the States. By 1968, over 2.4 million players were sold

The Compact Cassette is a small, plastic case containing a spool of 3.81 mm magnetic tape spooled between two reels. The tape is run at a rate of 4.76 cm/second. A tape head in the tape player or deck, in contact with an exposed portion of the tape, interprets an analog signal from the tape’s magnetic surface.

When it first came into market, the storage capacity and sound quality of audio encoded on cassette tapes was quite poor due to its small size, but developments in analog encoding resulted in great improvements over the life of the technology and it proved to be a ground-breaking innovation.

Radio ga-ga

Twenty years after the telephone was invented and music was first sent down a telephone line, Guglielmo Marconi sent radio signals.

The inventor was born in Italy and studied at the University of Bologna. He was fascinated by Heinrich Hertz’s earlier discovery of radio waves, soon realising that it could be used for sending and receiving telegraph messages, referring to them as “wireless telegraphs.”

Marconi sent his first radio transmissions, in 1896. They were coded signals that were transmitted only about a mile. After this breakthrough, Marconi understood that his innovation held huge potential. Offering the invention to the Italian government, only to be turned down, he moved to England, took out a patent, and experimented further. In 1898 Marconi flashed the results of the Kingstown Regatta to the offices of a Dublin newspaper, thus making a sports event the first “public” broadcast.

Things progressed quickly as just one year later Marconi opened the first radio factory in Chelmsford, Essex and established a radio link between Britain and France. A link with the USA was established in 1901 and in 1909 Marconi shared the Nobel prize in physics for his wireless telegraph.

But Marconi’s wireless telegraph transmitted only signals. Voice over the air, as we know radio today, came only in 1921. Marconi went on to introduce short wave transmission in 1922.

Wilson Gunn