Physical Sound

The invention of a device that could accurately record and playback audio was, like many inventions of the 19th century, the result of a network of variously uncoordinated and competing efforts. Unlike later advances in audio technology, no market existed for audio playback in the 19th century, at least no direct markets. Instead, the earliest attempt at creating a device that could harness sound and convert it into some other form focused on meeting existing demands, specifically that of dictation-writing. As such, the first machine and inventor to attempt such a project (converting sound into script) was the Phonautograph invented by Leon Scott in Paris France in 1857. 

The Phonautograph was set up not unintentionally like the inner ear of a human being. There was a cone, which focused the sound waves onto a diaphragm (like the ear canal and tympanic membrane), and a stylus, which would then convert the vibrations in the diaphragm into scribbles on lamp-black paper (UCSB: The Phonautograph). Unbeknownst to Scott, these scribbles in the paper contained the audio information that Thomas Edison and his team would later realize could be converted back into sound.  

First Playback of Audio, Edison's Tinfoil Phonograph

Edison and his Tinfoil Phonograph

Despite meeting Edison and Bell and discussing the possibility, Leon Scott was not interested in audio playback. What he wanted to do was create a machine that could convert the spoken word into writing. An application, he thought, with far more utility than audio playback (Sterne, 2003).  

To experience playback, the world had to wait 10 more years before Edison and a team of researchers at his lab discovered that by replacing the stylus of the phonautograph with a needle, and reversing the process i.e. by having the squiggles on the paper (or tinfoil in Edison’s case) move the needle, which vibrated the diaphragm which in turn projected these vibrations into a cone, playback of the original audio could be achieved. Edison called his device the Phonograph, and it served as the basis for recording and playback for the next century (Rutgers: The Tinfoil Phonograph)

To watch this process at work is truly baffling, even today (perhaps especially so). The notion that all the information we perceive as sound can be compressed into grooves in wax, or dimples in tin, seems magical. Yet this is unambiguously what happens, and in fact is quite a simple process. Indeed, the invention itself, based off of Leon Scott’s design which imitated the function of the human ear, is fairly widespread in nature (Lombard, 1978). 

An important note about the Phonograph or it's various copies (the Gramophone / Graphophone) is that all used a process that was entirely analog in their initial iterations. For our purposes, this means they used no electricity. Like a mechanical watch, each machine relied on springs and cranks (wound by hand, and later by batteries) to set up the cylinder or disc with enough energy to spin through the entirety of the recording. In addition, because the sound from the source is converted directly into grooves in a recording material, it relied entirely upon the signal strength of the instrument or singer performing. This had significant limitations when recording an instrumental piece with say a quartet or band. Because of the varying volumes of instruments as well as the piece of music, some musicians had to be positioned on movable stools to prevent the audio clipping in the grooveThis was a very complicated process, depending on the type of performance, and required teams of workers manning pulleys, and detailed planning to time the movement of the musicians with the correct moment in the performance (Sterne, 2003). 

The Phonograph/Gramophone

Furthermore, recordings of vocal tracks often required performers to literally put their mouths up against the cone and shout, limiting both their movement and in many cases the way they pronounced words. In both cases, the very materiality of the “medium,” in this case the cone and the wax/tin, played an obvious and significant role in shaping what kind of “message" could and couldn’t be recorded. Over time this would become less and less the case as the technologies themselves progressed and became more accessible and less burdensome to maintain (Sterne, 2003), (Macluhan, 1964).

Given these issues, recording in the early stages was less concerned with creating a perfect copy of something, and more with simply producing an audible copy of something. In fact, Edison initially envisioned the phonograph being used much like an audio recorder would be today: as a way to document the goings-on of businesses and government, like an automatic stenographer, without any writing. Thus as a way to promote his invention, he sent several free phonographs to congress to be used for such a purpose. Unfortunately for Edison, but fortunately for stenographers, the recordings were so garbled, and the machines so unruly, that all the phonographs Edison sent to Congress free of charge, were summarily returned (Library of Congress: The Phonograph).

The Phonograph clearly wasn’t anywhere close to being an audio “lieutenant” upon whom we could reliably delegate tasks, indeed if it was anything, it was probably closer to an infant: in need of constant attention, easily sick, unpredictable, but fascinating all the same (Sterne, 2003) (Latour, 1988). Despite all of these issues, it must have been an incredibly exciting time to live. An important milestone had been achieved and a historic precedent had been set: sound had gone from a singular and ephemeral experience, to a relatively permanent and repeatable one. Like a genie trapped in a lamp, sound now existed as a portable, tangible commodity, and as such, would come to play an increasingly important part of our individual and collective lives (Gitelman, 1999). The true revolution in audio recording however, would have to wait until scientists managed to harness the power of electricity itself…