Take a moment and think about your day, your week, your weekend plans. Now, take those memories and plans and eliminate listening to music.
A quiet world it would be indeed, and if not for Edison’s phonograph, a quiet life you would have.
We’ve said in the past that innovation is often taking something that exists and making it better; “reinventing the wheel,” so to speak. This is the first in a series of blog posts where we Imagine Life Without certain innovations and then trace the evolution of those innovations to what we know and are accustomed to today.
We’re going to kick off the series with the phonograph – an innovation by an inventor we know and love, Thomas Edison. Let’s take a closer look at the innovation that launched an industry.
Thomas Edison came upon the concept of recording and reproducing sound while trying to automate speech sounds for the telephone. He gave a demonstration of the phonograph for Scientific American magazine in late 1877.
Without any warning, visitors to the demonstration turned the crank on the device, and to the astonishment of all present, the machine said: “Good morning. How do you do? How do you like the phonograph?”
Ultimately, the device liberated music from live performance, bringing it to mass audiences and promoting the worldwide popularity of another uniquely American idiom: Jazz. The machines first recorded on tinfoil cylinders, later moved to wax, and eventually, played vinyl.
Following the phonograph, the next great invention was the radio. In 1897, Nikolai Tesla applied for and received the first radio system patent after demonstrating it the year before at the World’s Fair. Radio took advantage of the amazing invisible parts of the electromagnetic spectrum to transmit information through waves. The first radio was invented in 1901, when Guglielmo Marconi sent the first radio transaction. The technology was the most important means of communication in the old days particularly during the World War era.
Vinyl Records (1939)
In 1930, RCA Victor launched the first commercially-available vinyl long-playing record, marketed as “Program Transcription” discs. These revolutionary discs were designed for playback at 33⅓ rpm and pressed on a 12″ diameter flexible plastic disc. During and after World War II when shellac supplies were extremely limited, some 78 rpm records were pressed in vinyl instead of shellac (wax), particularly the six-minute 12″ (30 cm) 78 rpm records produced by V-Disc for distribution to US troops in World War II.
Beginning in 1939, Columbia Records continued development of this technology. Dr. Peter Goldmark and his staff undertook exhaustive efforts to address problems of recording and playing back narrow grooves and developing an inexpensive, reliable consumer playback system. In 1948, the 12″ (30 cm) Long Play (LP) 33⅓ rpm microgroove record was introduced by the Columbia Records at a dramatic New York press conference.
Tape Recorder (1945)
The concept of recording audio on tape didn’t reach the U.S. until after World War II, when Jack Mullin of the U.S. Army’s Signal Corps brought two German recorders home in 1945. Three decades later, President Richard Nixon used as many as nine devices to record 3700 hours of phone calls and meetings between 1971 and 1973. The most controversial aspects of Nixon’s tapes was the 18.5-minute gap, allegedly erased as part of the Watergate scandal.
The 1950s boom in high-fidelity gear revealed a new breed of consumer – gadget buffs masquerading as music purists. The first integrated hi-fi receiver, the Festival D1000, was designed by Sidney Harman and Bernard Kardon of Harman/Kardon in 1954. Ironic that now vinyl is making a resurgence with the hipster generation.
Transistor Radio (1954)
“World’s first transistor radio” is too modest. By replacing vacuum tubes with transistors, the Regency TR-1 became the first portable media player in 1954. It cost $49.95, and approximately 100,000 units were sold in 14 months. Interesting how design elements of the transistor radio resemble the first iPod design…evidence that what’s old can definitely be new again…
Compact Cassette Tape (1962)
Invented by Philips in 1962, compact cassettes came in two forms, either already containing content as a pre-recorded cassette or as a fully recordable “blank” cassette (ah, the format of the beloved mixed tape was born). Originally designed for dictation machines, the initial sound quality was mediocre at best, but improvements in fidelity let the compact cassette surpass the Stereo 8-track cartridge in the mid/late 1970s. This format began outselling vinyl on a per capita basis in the U.S. in the early 1980s before yielding later in the decade to the CD.
Stereo 8 (8-track tape) (1964)
Invented in 1964 by Bill Lear of the Lear Jet Corporation, the 8-track tape was a further development of the Stereo-Pak four-track audio cartridge introduced by Earl “Madman” Muntz. The major change was to incorporate a neoprene rubber and nylon pinch roller into the cartridge itself, rather than making the pinch roller a part of the tape player, reducing mechanical complexity. By doubling the tracks from four to eight, the recording length doubled to 80 minutes. In 1964, Lear’s aircraft company manufactured 100 demonstration Stereo 8 players for distribution to executives at RCA and the auto companies.
The 8-track format increased in popularity thanks to the booming automobile industry. In 1965, Ford Motor Company introduced factory-installed and dealer-installed eight-track tape players as an option of three of it’s 1966 models (Mustang, Thunderbird and Lincoln). The format continued to gain popularity because of it’s convenience and popularity. Home players were announced in 1966 and by the late 1960s, the 8-track segment was the largest in the consumer electronics market.
The boombox by its typical definition—a handled, portable, radio cassette deck with one or more speakers—was actually invented in the Netherlands by Philips in 1969. The one considered the first boombox was made so that you could record from the radio onto the cassette without having any external cables for a microphone. All of a sudden, you’ve got a very easy music-sharing culture, and the Japanese companies basically took that idea and ran with it.
In the minds of many, the first device that symbolizes the urban boombox of popular culture is the JVC RC-550 made in 1975.
Sony Walkman (1979):
With its compact design, the Walkman was aesthetically pleasing, portable and popular, with over 200 million being sold worldwide. Music was no longer restricted to the home: consumers were now able to listen – in private – to their favorite tracks on their commute to work or while they were exercising, and cassettes began to outsell vinyl. In 2010, with downloadable music dominating the market, Sony announced that it would stop producing the Walkman.
CD Player (1984)
In 1984, just one year after the introduction of the CD, Sony released the first portable CD player – the first step from analog to digital media. The device sold so well that other companies soon bought out similar products. By 2007, 200 billion CDs had been sold worldwide.
The iPod – and iTunes, Apple’s media library – allowed people to listen to music ripped from their CDs or downloaded from the internet. Today, with sales of CDs and whole albums in seemingly terminal decline, global revenue from digital music is $5.9 billion, according to the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI). Yet the digital download market is now suffering – in 2012, the number of digital downloads was 1.34 billion, in 2013, it was 1.26 billion, according to Billboard – as listeners turn to streaming sites such as Spotify, Pandora and Grooveshark.
In a span of 140 years, the way we listen to music has certainly come a long way and continues to evolve with the advent of streaming media. While this was not an exhaustive list, the takeaway is that without Edison’s phonograph, our histories, both personal and societal, would be drastically different… and much quieter.
Who knows, your next great idea could launch an industry, so plug in those headphones and submit your next great idea now!
Have you ever thought, “wouldn’t it be cool if…”?
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