• 1250 Boston Post Road
  • Guilford, CT USA
  • Tu-Fr: 11-6 & Sa: 11-5
  • 203-458-8353

Recording & Listening Technologies

Back to Research > History

American popular music only becomes popular through wide distribution. Our ability to hear new songs and musical works has been directly linked to the inventions and advancements in the recording industry. The following is a work-in-progress of histories of some of the milestones of recording and listening innovations. Please send your thoughts, comments or corrections.

Player Pianos

Up through the 1800s, if you wanted to hear or play music, most of your options involved hearing a live performance or playing an instrument yourself. There were exceptions (some of them described below) but simple, affordable music delivery systems didn’t yet exist. Popular music was spread by concerts and sheet music. Since printed music notation was widely available, many people were musically trained. They could read music and play at least one instrument: piano, violin, organ, flute, mandolin, guitar, etc. It was not unusual to find average people that played many instruments. Due to the basic ability to read music, they could be described as a discerning and educated consumer of published music. During their basic music training, they tended to absorb some compositional knowledge of the Classics. Americans and Europeans of the late eighteen hundreds were arguably the most musically knowledgeable consumers of the last century.

Technology brought the desire to create machines that could bring the performances of great musicians into the average person’s house. It was one thing to buy sheet music of the latest popular tune but something quite different to hear what the composer had in mind. It would be even better if someone could develop a way to hear the actual composer perform the new work. Imagine being able to listen to a world-renowned virtuoso playing the piece as if they were performing on the piano in your living room! These ideas obsessed the inventors of the day. Even so, they couldn’t possibly see the impact on the spread and distribution of popular musical tastes if they actually succeeded.

The idea of recording a performance and making it readily available and affordable to the public was new. What was needed was the technology to make the machines work, the manufacturing capacity for mass production and finally: distribution networks to reach every household in the land. The pieces were beginning to fall into place in the late eighteen hundreds.

What Came Before:

800 +/- Mechanical Recording

The earliest known mechanical device used to create music was invented by the Banu Musa brothers. Little is known about the pair except that they were prolific with ideas on how to recreate music mechanically. Their first known creation was a hydro powered organ. A disk, turned by waterpower, rotated interchangeable cylinders automatically. The cylinders had raised pins that triggered organ keys. The technology of cylinders with raised pins remained the predominant technology for operating automated instruments until the mid nineteenth century. The Banu Musa brothers also created a programmable automated device to play flutes.

1206 – Automatons

Al-Jazari invented a programmable device that could simultaneously automate human-like figures to perform different drum patterns triggered by raised pegs on rotating drums. It was essentially a robot band that could imitate facial and body motions while performing the drum rhythms.

1300s – Bell Ringers

An inventor named Flanders used the rotating drums with raised pegs to trigger bell ringing. These evolved slowly into the music boxes of today where a rotating cylinder with raised pegs strike tuned pins. The technology evolved:

  • 1400s – Barrel Organs
  • 1598 – Musical Clocks
  • 1796 – A Swiss watchmaker named Smooth Nikola set down an idea for a cylinder driven music box.
  • 1805 – Barrel Pianos

1815 – Music Boxes of today

1847 – Alexander Bain

Alexander Bain’s idea was to use a paper roll with carefully aligned holes to mechanically roll over a linear air source that would blow through the holes over organ pipe reeds. He essentially created a traveling valve that replaced the organ keyboard mechanical valves. The system worked well and some versions of it are still produced today but there wasn’t enough force of air to drive a piano keyboard.

1876 – Philadelphia Exposition

The first practical device was designed by Forneaux in 1863. This device solved the needed strength for striking the keys by a pneumatic-mechanical amplifier triggered by a perforated cardboard book. The device was manufactured for distribution. And exhibited at the Philadelphia Exposition of 1876 along with two other music playing machines. One of them was the invention of John McTammany who used a paper roll to trigger a spring loaded mechanical device operating a reed organ and another patented invention by Van Deusen (1867) used a paper roll to trigger a pneumatic striker.

The three devices exhibited in Philadelphia had most of the necessary components of a player piano but the final version would not appear for about twenty more years. The missing piece was developing a method to pneumatically read the piano roll. The problem that had not yet been solved was dependable airtight tubing. Though Charles Goodyear (1800-1860) patented the process of vulcanizing rubber in the US on June 15th, 1844, the process for extruding tubing had not been worked out dependably enough for wide distribution and availability. Pouch leather, used as small bellows and inflatable pouches to operate the pneumatic valves were also developed during the ensuing years. It was light, airtight and supple enough to do the job.

Following the Philadelphia Exposition, the mechanical music business began to grow. In 1878 the Mechanical Orguinette Company was founded to sell small reed organs manufactured by the Munroe Organ Company. This small operation evolved into the Aeolian Company. In 1896, Theodore P. Brown introduced and marketed the ‘Aeriol Piano’. It was the first complete player piano but not the only working design. Wilcox and White introduced their ‘Angelus’ cabinet player the same year and Edwin S. Votey introduced his ‘Pianola’ at about the same time.

1897 – Player Pianos

The ‘Pianola’ was offered to the Aeolian Company to sell alongside their reed organs in 1897 and aggressively marketed for nationwide distribution. With the advertizing developed by Harry Tremaine and the Wilcox and White Company, a broad market was established for player pianos. Catalogs and retail networks with the help of the national rail system made nation-wide distribution possible. Popular music now had a way into American households all over the country – provided they could afford the player.

In 1903 the Aeolian Company had 9,000 roll titles in their catalog and were adding 200 per month. The most popular titles included religious, classical and light entertainment as well as some ragtime.

In 1904 in Germany, Edwin Welte refined the process of making the rolls that controlled all parts of the performance automatically. His device, the Welte-Mignon, essentially allowed playback to mimic the original pianist’s performance. The impact was immediate: roll manufacturers scrambled to get the world’s most notable pianists to record the piano rolls. Now people could experience the performance in their own homes exactly as the composers had intended them.

The rolls of the day were 11 ¼” wide with holes spaced at 6 per inch. These were capable of triggering 65 of the piano’s 88 notes. This format lasted a little less than 10 years. In 1908, at an industry conference called the Buffalo Convention, a new standard was introduced: it used the 11 ¼” roll but tightened the hole spacing to 9 per inch making it possible to trigger all 88 piano keys. The standardization was necessary to avoid any further format wars that made it impossible to play another manufacturer’s title on your machine. Now all machines would play all the titles, no mater who made them. The downside was rapid consolidation of the industry since many of the smaller manufacturers couldn’t afford to rapidly change their manufacturing processes.

The concept of the early devices was to allow the owner to play along. Some rolls provided the left-hand accompaniment so the owner could provide the melody. ‘Word’ rolls were also available allowing the players to sing along with the piano music.

In the beginning of the 1920s, player pianos reached their peak popularity. More than half of all pianos in American contained a player unit and most every pianist of note had been called upon to provide piano roll performances.

World War I had led to rapid advancements in radio technology including electrical amplification. These technologies continued to develop into the 1920s. By 1925, the American public had a variety of new technologies to entertain them: 78 rpm records, and amplified radio sets where they could listen as a group rather than individually under crystal-set headphones. The new technologies had brought the actual performances of bands and orchestras into the household. Player pianos could not compete in price or flexibility and sales declined rapidly. By the crash of 1929, sales of player pianos were essentially dead. America loves new technologies and the innovations marched on.

© 2009, Leonard Wyeth

1857 – Phonoautograph

In 1857 in France, Edouard-Leon Scott came up with a device that allowed the vibrations of sound, captured by the large bell of a horn, to be transferred to a pen and drawn on paper. This way, one could see a graphic representation of sound. He called his device a phonoautograph (machine). It was an interesting academic exercise but didn’t have any real practical application. Ironically, the surviving paper transcriptions of Scott’s experiments can now be interpreted by computer (like a record groove) and played back as sound. Technically, that makes them the earliest know audio recordings.

1877 – Phonograph Cylinders

Thomas Edison saw the possibility of capturing the pattern of vibrations on a solid surface and then translating them back into sound. His earliest experiments used a long horn to physically reduce the sounds of a human voice to a stylus (needle) scratching the vibration patterns onto a moving tin foil surface. Then, using a similar stylus firmly attached to the small end of a horn, playing back the sounds, physically amplifying them back through the horn. It worked. Edison imagined that the new device would have commercial value in business as a transcription machine. The first Edison machines used a cylinder covered with foil and they generated a fair amount of interest in the business world for the next decade through the 1880s. These were the days of the steno pool: groups of women at typewriters with a limited number of carbon sheets to transcribe and copy documents for business communications. After all, the copy machine would not be developed for another 80 years. Edison’s machines probably saved some marriages by reducing the corporate image of the secretary sitting on the executive’s lap as she ‘took a letter’.

1888 – Berliner Gramophone

Emile Berliner developed an alternate format: flat discs that rotated and had grooves cut into them laterally. The initial use for these discs was in toys. Over the next 6 years, he developed and refined his idea by trial and error with different stylus arms, horns and turntables and disc materials. As the mechanisms became more dependable, the sound quality also improved with new disc material options. The invention was profitable and allowed Berliner to continue development. In 1894 Berliner began marketing the discs in Europe under the label: Berliner Gramophone. The idea was simple: commercial distribution of recorded music. The earliest versions were still below the audio fidelity of the contemporary Edison cylinder machines but the discs were less delicate, easier to handle, ship and manufacture. In 1892, Berliner incorporated the United States Gramophone Company in Washington D.C. The company offered 7” diameter records that spun at about 70 rpm and machines to play them. By 1894 the Berliner Gramophone Label was offered in the US.

The flat disc idea was a good one and caught on. Edison was determined to fight the new format rather than acknowledge its advantages. They were, therefore, slow to readapt.

The country was hungry for new music at the turn of the century and was benefiting from the industrial revolution. Jobs were plentiful and for the first time in memory, the average person had a bit of money to spare and some free time to enjoy it. Land was available and affordable and opportunity was everywhere. America was feeling the swelling of a middle class. Distribution networks made possible by the nationwide rail system made reasonably priced products available in the farthest corners of the nation. Technology was expanding everywhere at a staggering pace. Henry Ford was about to make cars available to the public by the development of mass production. The Wright Brothers were about to succeed in their effort to fly, Freud was jotting down insights to the human mind, Einstein was developing his first theory of relativity, and the list goes on and on. Culture was no longer relegated to a few major urban areas. Music and art came within the reach of the average American. The public was ready and willing to pay for it.

In 1897, Berliner opened a branch in London called the Gramophone Company and re-named in 1900: The Gramophone and Typewriter, Ltd. The company flourished and morphed over the next decades until becoming part of EMI in 1931. Berliner’s German operation later became: Deutsche Gramophone.

Meanwhile, back in America, The United States Gramophone Company suffered the normal problems of success: lawsuits, injunctions, mergers and divisions until it settled into existence as the Victor Talking Machine Company in late 1900. Over the next 3 decades the company evolved and was ultimately purchased and consolidated by RCA in 1929.

Recording artists were recruited by the recording company labels. It was the beginning of the concept of artists signing a recording contract with labels for appropriate advertising and distribution guarantees. Artists the recorded for Berliner included: John Phillip Sousa’s Band, the US Marine Band and hits included tunes like: “When Johnny Comes Marching Home”.

Technological Refinements

Controlling the speed of the earliest hand-cranked, spring-loaded machines was touchy at best. There were several varieties developed over the years but the primary technology was the use of speed regulators, or governors, to hold back the machines from spinning too fast. There were furnished with different indicators to show when the right speed was reached.

In 1925 the industry agreed on a standard, corresponding the development of relatively reliable electric motors that replaced hand-cranked mechanisms in phonographs. The new standard was a nominal 78-rpm. It isn’t clear why 78 rpm was selected other than accepting an average standard from the earlier mechanical machines. The standard varied a bit between America and Europe: In America it was based upon a 3,600 rpm synchronous electric motor run on a 60 Hz power supply, then reduced by 46:1 gearing. The resulting deck speed is 78.26 rpm. The European standard (and the rest of the world) assumed a 3,000 rpm synchronous motor running on a 50 Hz power supply, then reduced by 38.5:1 yielding a deck speed of 77.92 rpm. Close enough.

Flat discs had numerous technological considerations:

  • The stylus travels through the outer grooves considerably faster than the inner grooves – if the table rotation is a constant rpm. This makes the best frequency and signal to noise ratio response at the otter grooves.
  • The length of the recorded material becomes an issue of the width of the groove and their spacing: Wider grooves allow better frequency response but force the spacing to be wider. Tighter spacing allows longer recordings but compromised sound quality.
  • The size of the disc and the spacing of the grooves determined the maximum recording time. The length of the American popular song was therefore codified at about 3 ½ minutes.

King Oliver’s Creole Jazz band with Louis Armstrong recorded 13 tunes in Indiana in 1923. By necessity, they were all under 3 minutes. By 1938, pressure to extend the recordings was strong. Milt Gabler, recording for his label Commodore Records on April 30th of that year, switched to 12” records realizing that the jam sessions needed more room to develop. He was able to extend the recording time to about 4 ½ minutes.

In England, the method used to record an entire opera was to record on multiple sides. The release that year of Verdi’s Ernani took 40 sides. It wasn’t until the invention of the long-playing record in 1948 that recording times could be extended to about 30 minutes per side.

In the 1890s through the turn of the century, 7” diameter was common. This was good for about 3 minutes of music. The time worked for popular tunes. Materials included hard rubber but began to standardize around 1897 as shellac. The actual formula was refined in Hanover Germany: 25% shellac, cotton filler material, powdered slate and a small amount of wax as a lubricant. The shellac was brittle enough to hold the grooves through multiple playings. This formulation actually continued for 78s through part of the 1950s. It was not the only formulation. “Unbreakable” records were made from 1904 of celluloid on a pasteboard base but had much higher surface noise than shellac. They were, by the way, breakable, but more flexible and sturdier than shellac. The material restrictions of the 1940s caused experimentation on 78s with vinyl. It worked, but the decline of market share for 78s encouraged further vinyl developments for the new 45 and 33 1/3 rpm projects.

1903 saw the disc size grow to 12” for commercial distribution. This made it possible to have slightly longer musical pieces like symphonic or operatic works fit on one (sometime 2) side(s) of a disk. These could accommodate up to 5 minuteh4 per side. By 1910, had become the popular standard. It held about 3 to 4 minutes of music per side. Other sizes came and went but the 10” standard remained through the 1950s for 78-rpm records.

The early recordings used the Horn tied to cutting stylus technology. The limitations were clear: The loudest instruments would be held back from the recording horn and the vocals were shouting directly into the horn. Cellos and double bases could not be heard. Drums had to be way back. Some instruments were modified with their own horns directly attached to their sound boxes. In general, it was a technology with too many limitations.

The breakthrough occurred in the early 1920s when engineers including Orlando R. Marsh and those at Western Electric refined ways to use sound vibrations to excite a small diaphragm in a magnetic field. This generated a tiny current that could be electronically amplified by vacuum tubes and the stronger current used to drive a cutting stylus. The process could then be reversed and amplified to drive electronic or mechanical speakers. In 1930, a New York Times critic stated: “…the time has come for serious musical criticism to take account of performances of great music reproduced by means of the records. To claim that the records have succeeded in exact and complete reproduction of all the details of symphonic or operatic performances … would be extravagant. The article of today is so far in advance of the old machines has hardly to admit classification under the same name. Electrical recording and reproduction have combined to retain vitality and colors in recitals by proxy.”

Record company: Odeon in Germany is said to have pioneered the idea of record ‘Albums’. They released Tchaikovsky’s ‘Nutcracker Suite” in 1909 on 4 double sided discs in a designed package. Other companies gradually followed. It became a marketing ploy to grab the public’s attention and increase the perceived value of the product. Some were even bound in leather covers.

1931 – LP and EP – Long Play and Extended Play Records

In 1931, as the depression deepened, RCA Victor launched a long plying record made of vinyl. They were made to be played at 33 1/3 rpm and had a duration of about 10 minutes per side. The idea was sound, the technology was appropriate, but the launch was a commercial failure. It was the beginning of the depression and people were not inclined to buy new playing equipment. RCA was not doing that well either and could not financially support the new technology until it found public acceptance. The RCA long playing records were discontinued in early 1933. It was the right idea at the wrong time.

The low surface noise of vinyl and it’s strength and flexibility were remembered: In the late 1930s, pre-recorded radio programs were stamped in vinyl and mailed to Disk Jockeys as they were much less likely to break in transit than shellac. Soon, anything that needed to be mailed was pressed in vinyl. Shortages of shellac during the war years of 1940 to 1945 made vinyl the natural choice. 12” 78s with 6 minutes of info were distributed to the Troops through V-Disc on vinyl. When longer radio transcriptions were needed, they simply made the records bigger. Some were distributed at 16” and 33 1/3 rpm vinyl formats.

In 1939 Dr. Peter Goldmark and staff at Columbia Records set about creating an affordable playback system for public distribution, and 33 1/3 records with narrower grooves so that the groove spacing could be tightened up and the recording capacity of each side of a record increased to 30 minutes. By 1948 they had settled on a 12” diameter, 33 1/3 rpm vinyl format. The breakthrough included an audio compression system that allowed the groove width to be narrowed. The resulting 33 1/3 rpm microgroove record was introduced at a press conference on June 21st, 1948. The Long Play (LP) was born.

In February of 1949 RCA Victor released the first 45-rpm single at 7” diameter with a large center hole. The new format was specifically intended to operate in Juke Boxes. The large hole was designed to accommodate the automatic changer mechanisms. They could handle 4 minutes of music per side – consistent with the American popular song format of the previous 40 years.

1954 – RIAA Equalization

The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) was formed to establish an industry standard for recording equalization. Prior to 1954, each recording company had their own equalization standards.

In order to cut grooves into a surface that accurately reflect the sounds that are being recorded; the mechanical act of cutting has to fall within the physical tolerances of the materials being used. If a stylus is cutting the groove, it can only respond to a sound within its capabilities. Low frequencies make bigger cuts than high frequencies. Very high frequencies are so delicate that they are hard to cut or translate. To accommodate these differences, low frequencies are compressed to make smaller movements in the groove. Very high frequencies are increased to make bigger impressions in the grooves. Then, for the playback to sound right, they need to be reinterpreted, or re-equalized to sound natural.

In 1954, The Recording Industry Association of America standardized the equalization curve for the record producing industry. This paved the way to improve the record playing equipment. Now, all records would sound pretty much the same, or at least as well as they were recorded. Once the Long Playing standard of 33 1/3 rpm 12” records set in with the new RIAA EQ curve, companies began to innovate the turntables, cartridges, amplifiers and speaker systems to reproduce the music. High Fidelity (HiFi) was born.

© 2009, Leonard Wyeth

Discoveries & Electronic Milestones

1792 – Electrochemistry – Voltaic Cell

Italian scientist Alessandro Volta developed a theory that two different metals – separated by the moist tissue, would generate electricity. In 1800 Volta demonstrated the theory and went on to invent the first electric battery (the voltaic pile) which he made from thin sheets of copper and zinc separated by felt soaked in brine. This was a new kind of electricity that flowed steadily instead of discharging itself in a single pulse. Volta showed that electricity could be made to travel from one place to another by wire.

1820 – Electromagnetism, Relating to Current

In 1820 physicist Hans Christian Oersted discovered that current flowing through a wire would move a compass needle placed beside it. This showed that the electric current produced a magnetic field.

Andre Marie Ampere, a French mathematician, was the first to document the electro-dynamic theory. He showed that charged parallel wires attracted each other if the current flowed in the same direction and opposed each other if the current flowed in opposite directions. He documented this in mathematical terms – the laws that govern the interaction of currents with magnetic fields in a circuit. The resulting unit of electric current – the amp – was derived from his name. An electric charge in motion is called electric current. The strength of a current is the amount of charge passing a given point per second, or I = Q/t, where Q coulombs of charge passing in t seconds. The unit for measuring current is the ampere or amp, where 1 amp = 1 coulomb/sec. Because it is the source of magnetism as well, current is the link between electricity and magnetism.

1826 – Resistance

In 1826 the German Physicist Georg Simon Ohm examined Volta’s Principle of the electric battery and Ampere’s relationship of currents in a circuit. He noticed that when there was a current in a circuit, it sometimes produced heat. The amount of heat was related to the different metals. He discovered that there was a relationship between the amounts of current and heat. When there was any resistance to the flow of current, there was heat. Ohm discovered that if the potential difference (volts) remained constant, the current was in proportion to the resistance. This unit of electrical resistance – the ohm – was named after him. He formulated a law, showing the relationship between volts, amps and resistance and called it ‘Ohm’s Law’. This law, as we know it today, is the basis of understanding electricity.

1830 – Joseph Henry & James C. Maxwell

In 1830 Joseph Henry (1797-1878) discovered that a change in magnetism can make currents flow, but he never published his findings. In 1832 he described self-inductance – the basic property of an inductor. In recognition of his work, inductance is measured in ‘henries’. The stage was now set for the encompassing electromagnetic theory of James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879). The variation of actual currents is enormous. A electrometer can detect currents as low as 1/100,000,000,000,000,000 amp, which is a mere 63 electrons per second. The current in a nerve impulse is approximately 1/100,000 amp; a 100-watt light bulb carries 1 amp; a lightning bolt peaks at about 20,000 amps; and a 1,200-megawatt nuclear power plant can deliver 10,000,000 amps at 115 V.

1836 – Daniell Cell

In 1836 John Daniell (1790-1845) developed an improved electric battery that supplied even current during continuous operation. The Daniell cell gave new impetus to electric research and found many commercial applications.

1837 – Telegraph, Electromagnet

Once the electric battery and the electromagnet were commonly understood, Samuel Morse (1791-1872) assembled the ideas into the electric telegraph. Coded messages were sent over wires by means of electrical pulses (identified as dots and dashes) known as Morse code. The electric telegraph was the first practical use of electricity and the first system of electrical communication. Ironically, it was the Post Office in Australia that played an important part; using the new technology and in the organizing the communication.

1855 – Michael Faraday – Electromagnetic Induction

Englishman Michael Faraday (1791-1867) discovered Electromagnetic induction. His work explored how electric currents work. The measured unit of capacitance, the farad, carries his name.

Faraday theorized: If electricity could produce magnetism, why couldn’t magnetism produce electricity. In 1831, Faraday discovered that electricity could be produced through magnetism by motion. When a magnet is moved inside a coil of copper wire, a tiny electric current flows through the wire. By 1855, publishing his theories and demonstrations, he was able to explain that these magnetic fields were lines of force. These lines of force would cause a current to flow in a coil of wire, when the coil is rotated between the poles of a magnet. This action then shows that the coils of wire being cut by lines of magnetic force, in some strange way, produces electricity. These experiments, convincingly demonstrated the discovery of electromagnetic induction in the production of electric current, by a change in magnetic intensity. Though induction would lead to the development of electric motors in 1871, the basic theories of electro-magnetism developed in 1831 would make microphones and speakers possible.

1866 – LeClanche Cell

French engineer Leclanché (1839-1882) refined the battery that bears his name. The Leclanché battery, now known as a dry cell, is essentially what is now used in flashlights and portable radios. This battery consists of a zinc case filled with a moist paste containing ammonium sulfate. In the center of this electrolyte paste is a carbon rod coated with manganese dioxide, which is a strong oxidizing agent.

1871 – DC Generator

Zenobe Theophile Gramme introduced an induction motor. It was a further development of the work of earlier inventors. If the motor drive were dynamically driven, the motor produced electricity – the first DC generator. With the development of the carbon filament lamp by Edison in 1879, the DC generator became one of the essential components of the constant-potential lighting systems. This made commercial lighting and residential lighting practical and the electric light and power industry was born. By 1872, Siemens and Halske of Berlin improved on Gramme’s generator, by producing the drum armature. Other improvements were made, such as the slotted armature in 1880 but by 1882, Edison had completed the design of the system we still use to distribute electricity from power stations.

1876 – Telephone

In 1875 Alexander Graham Bell (1847-1922) was interested in improving telegraphy. He theorized that if Morse Code could be created and ‘heard’, why not translate the sound of a voice into electrical pulses that could then be reversed and heard at the other end of the system? Using Faraday’s discoveries, Bell used a diaphragm to excite a coil to generate the electrical pulses for transmission and then used a coil and diaphragm to translate the pulses back into sound. It worked. He continued working on these experiments and on March 7th, 1876 his telephone was patented and demonstrated at the Philadelphia Exhibition that year. The telephone was born. A unit of sound level is called a bel in his honor. Sound levels are measured in tenths of a bel, or decibels. The abbreviation for decibel is dB.

1879 – DC Generation & Incandescent Light

Thomas Alva Edison, (1847-1931) is credited (along with British scientist Joseph Swan) with the invention of the electric light bulb and refinements to DC generation.

1880 – Heaviside Layer

Oliver Heaviside (1850-1925) The British mathematician realized that information travels along a cable as a wave in the space between the conductors, rather than through the conductors themselves. His concepts made it possible to design long-distance telephone cables. He also discovered why radio waves bend around the Earth. This led to long-range radio reception.

1883 – Alternating Current

Nikola Tesla (1856-1943) was born of Serbian parents and died a broke and lonely man in New York City. He is referred to by some as the greatest inventive genius of all time. Tesla experimented with generators and discovered the rotating magnetic field in 1883. This rotating magnetic field changes direction sixty times a second and is called 60 Hertz. The alternating current generator is referred to as a A.C. current. He then developed plans for an induction motor, that would become the first step towards using alternating current.

Tesla’s system makes possible the first large-scale harnessing of Niagara Falls with the first hydroelectric plant in the United States in 1886. DC generators had been in operation in New York City since 1882. Around this time scientists realized that DC current would not transmit over long distances. George Westinghouse was awarded the contract to build the first generators at Niagara Falls. He used his money to buy up patents in the electric field. Among the inventions he bought was the transformer from William Stanley and Nikola Tesla’s patented motor for generating alternating current. The work of Westinghouse, Tesla and others gradually persuaded American society that the future lay with AC rather than DC (Adoption of AC generation enabled the transmission of large blocks of electrical, power using higher voltages via transformers, which would have been impossible otherwise). Today the unit of measurement for magnetic fields commemorates Tesla’s name.

1888 – Oberlin Smith – Theoretical Recording Machine

On September 8th 1888, Oberlin Smith (1840-1926) published a description of a recording device that used an electromagnet and a string covered with iron filings. The journal was ‘Electrical World’ and it included a diagram of the machine. It used Edison’s telephone to capture, amplify and transmit the sound of a voice as electrical pulses used to magnetize the iron filings. Then, the process could be reversed and the sound recreated. It isn’t clear whether a working prototype was ever built since no machine has survived, but the science was intriguing and plausible.

1890 – Electric Frequency

German physicist Heinrich Hertz (1857-1894) laid the groundwork for the vacuum tube. This set the stage for the future development of radio, telephone, telegraph, and even television. He was one of the first people to demonstrate the existence of electric waves.

© 2009, Leonard Wyeth

Magnetic Tape Recording

1898 – Valdemar Poulsen – Magnetic Recording Machine

In Denmark, Valdemar Poulsen actually built a machine that worked on the same principles documented by Oberlin Smith 10 years earlier. It does not appear that Poulsen ever saw Smith’s article. He simply arrived at the same conclusions with the available technologies of the day. Poulsen had become a telephone engineer in 1893 at the Copenhagen Telephone Company. His experiments with magnetism were intended to find a way to record phone conversations – the first telephone message machines.

Poulsen patented his machine in 1898 and called it a Telegraphone. It worked by wrapping wire around a rotating drum and used a recording and playback head that followed by a screw. The first versions were vertical drums, later refined to horizontal drums and patented in the United States in 1899. Poulsen and his partner Peder O. Pedersen discovered that the application of a direct current to the recording head (DC bias) improved the sound quality on a steel tape version of the Telegraphone. The improved machine was presented to the public at the Paris Exhibition of 1900. The invention was well received and mentioned in many journals of the day. At the Paris Fair, Poulsen recorded the voice of Emperor Franz Joseph. The recording remains today at the Danish National Museum of Science and Technology – making it the oldest existing magnetic sound recording. (Listen to a fragment of the recording)

Poulsen stopped work on magnetic recording and turned to radio after 1902. The American Telegraphone Company acquired the patent rights in 1905 and made dictating machines, selling 50 to the Du Pont Company. However, the signal was weak without amplification and the wire spools were unreliable. The rival wax cylinder phonographs of the Ediphone and Dictaphone companies were cheaper and more reliable. By 1918, the company went into receivership and stopped manufacturing after 1924.

Poulsen’s patent expired in 1918 and Germany led efforts to improve magnetic recording while the US pursued groove based recording systems. In 1925, Curt Stille developed the Dailygraph magnetic wire recorder as a dictating machine. Semi Joseph Begun at the C. Lorenz Co. developed a steel tape recorder called the Stahtonbandmaschine. However, wire and steel tape would be replaced in the 1930s by thin plastic tape. Dr. Fritz Pfleumer was granted in 1928 a patent in Germany for the application of magnetic powders to strip of paper or film.

In 1930 the Allgemeine Elektrizitatsgesellschaft (AEG) in Berlin began to develop a magnetophone machine based on the Pfleumer principle. 2 years later they set up a collaboration with BASF, Ludwigshafen: AEG would developed the system, BASF an appropriate sound carrier. This collaboration was carefully considered. BASF was on-track for the development of magnetic tape. Since 1925 they had worked with carbonyl iron powder in the finest particles that had been produced for induction coils in telephone cables. They also had experience with manufacturing enamel paint by milling and dispersing the dyestuffs with cellulose acetate and solvents. Simultaneously, the development of plastics had started for the production of foils and fibres. In 1934 these discoveries and research came together and BASF was able to ship the first 50,000 meters of magnetic tape. The tape consisted of a carrier material of a foil of cellulose acetate coated with a lacquer of iron oxide as magnetic pigment and cellulose acetate as binder. During the 1935 Radio Fair in Berlin the Magnetophone and the Magnetic Tape were demonstrated to the public.

The first public recording using the AEG Magnetophon was November 19th, 1936, of the London Philharmonic orchestra conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham at BASF’s concert hall in Ludwigshaven. The tape used for this recording was an improved formulation based on (Fe3O4) Ferric Oxide rather than the original Carbonal Iron (which was chemically less stable and had a poor dynamic range of under 30db). The Ferric Oxide had a dynamic range of 37db. A single Neumann bottle microphone was used for the recording.

 

© 2009, Leonard Wyeth

Special thanks to Steven Schoenherr and the sandiego.edu site for historical backgroun and context.

Thanks to rare-earth-magnet.com for historical time-line information

Shure Microphones and Phonograph Cartridges

1925 – Sidney N. Shure

Sidney N. Shure had became interested in amateur radio as a child and built his own radio sets. The interest slowly became a passion and he pursued it as a career. After his graduation from the University of Chicago, he set up a company in 1925 – Shure Incorporated – to distribute radio parts. This was his way of sharing his passion. In 1925, Radio’s popularity was growing by leaps and bounds. Factory built radios were still not available for purchase. The new firm took off and Shure made good money during the Roaring Twenties. He understood both the science and the economic potential of the magical wireless devices. In 1928, Shure’s brother, Samuel J. Shure, joined him and the name of the firm was changed to Shure Brothers Company. By that time, they employed over 75 people in an expanded facility in downtown Chicago. The future was bright.

Black Friday in 1929 saw the beginning of the Great Depression. This occurred simultaneously with a critical shift in the radio market. By 1930, the National Broadcasting Corporation (NBC) was operating two networks in the United States. There was ever growing demand for consumer radios: 13.5 million finished radio sets were sold that year. Radio was no longer a hobby market – it was a consumer market. The demand for parts plunged. Sidney Shure saw the opportunities and fresh potential in the changing market. Microphones were needed for broadcasting, military, police, aviation and every other sector where wireless radio was expanding. There were only a few microphone manufacturers in the United States. Many of the best microphones came from overseas – they were large, delicate and expensive. Shure entered the microphone business, licensing microphone patents and hiring engineers to develop new products.

The first microphone, the Shure Two-Button Carbon Microphone, was released in 1932. It was compact, durable, lightweight, versatile, dependable and affordable. It won immediate popularity for live sound and two-way radio applications. Both professional and amateur broadcasters bought it. It cost about $30 at a time. In comparison: other microphones (mostly German imports) cost several hundred dollars. Shure established a network of sales representatives to market the new microphone through well-established electronic parts distributors. The businesses that a few years earlier had been competitors now became Shure Brothers outlets.

1933 – Shure introduced the Model 40D, its first high-end condenser microphone.

1935 – Shure released a crystal microphone.

1937 – Shure introduced the world’s first noise-canceling microphone.

1939 – Shure researchers, under the direction of engineer Ben Bauer, hit pay dirt with the development of the Model 55 Unidyne microphone, the world’s first single-element unidirectional microphone. It cost about $45 at the time. Thh4 development of unidirectional microphones was significant: By reducing extraneous noise from the sides, they naturally limited feedback. Bauer did not invent the unidirectional mic, but he had found a way to construct them from a single element. This reduced the size, simplified construction and therefore lowered costs. The Unidyne had a visually striking Art Deco design based in part on the front grill of a 1937 Cadillac.

It was during this period that politicians started addressing large crowds in front of Shure microphones. They were modern, compact (not blocking a view of the politicians face), and helped the politician to sound very good. This meant that the photographs that appeared in newspapers and on the silver screen of politicians usually included a Shure microphone. There could be no better advertising. The new product was also a seductive image in popular music. Singers of the big band era no longer had to rely on their own volume. Velvet-voiced, intimate crooners, like Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra, could now be easily heard.

1940 – 1945 – World War II

The start of World War II actually helped Unidyne sales. Once war was declared, German microphones were no longer available. The Shure Unidyne became the dominant microphone in the United States.

The war also created new markets. Microphones were needed on ships, tanks, planes, and the infantry. Beginning in 1941, the War Department contracted with Shure to produce microphones. Shure developed a range of models for the military including the T-30 Throat microphone, which was fastened near the collar of a bomber pilot’s jacket and operated by throat vibrations. With metal at a premium, Shure also developed mics made of plastic, an early manufacturing application of the new material.

1945 – Entering the Consumer Market

With the end of World War II, the demand for tens of thousands of microphones for the military dried up. Despite this, Shure was about to enter its most successful period. Shure again saw the potential in the changing marketplace. Changes in the recording industry, popular music industry, phonograph records, record players and related markets were responding to the needs of the new American middle class: the soldiers that returned from the war with money in their pockets, young families and great hopes for the future. The consumer market was exploding.

Shure launched a line of phonograph cartridges in 1937. It was a natural extension of its microphones. Phono cartridges and microphones work on precisely the same principle: a magnet or coil of wire generates an electric signal from an acoustic or mechanical signal. Almost from the start Shure’s phono cartridges were supplied to the country’s leading phonograph manufacturers, including RCA, Emerson, and Magnavox. Although for a time the firm also produced playback and recording heads for tape recorders, the bulk of its efforts went into developing better cartridges. By the 1950s, Shure was the leading manufacturer of phonograph cartridges in the world.

Shure experimented with a variety of ideas that were a bit ahead of their time:

1953 – the Vagabond wireless microphone, the world’s first wireless microphone for performing. Frank Sinatra was a note worthy tester. Unfortunately, the Vagabond was fragile, expensive and undependable.

1955+/- – Shure manufactured a phono cartridge for Chrysler’s short-lived in-car phonograph, the Highway Hi-Fi.

1958 – Shure introduced the world’s first stereo phonograph cartridge, the M3D.

1959 – Shure released the Unidyne III; changing forever the way microphones would look.

In 1956, Shure moved into a new headquarters in Evanston IL. A major impulse for the development of new microphones in the 1950s was the rise of rock ‘n’ roll. Electric guitars had become the instrument of choice. Microphone now needed to reproduce the voice and other instruments at levels that could blend with electric guitars. The size of concert venues continued to grow larger over the next 20 year placing greater demands on all components of sound reproduction systems.

1960s – Rock ‘n’ Roll

Shure continued to refine its microphones during the 1960s to meet musicians increasingly demanding standards for sound quality and volume on stage.

1965 – Shure introduced the SM57 (SM stands for Studio Model). This mic could be used to amplify speech, singing, or musical instruments. It has been on the podium of every American president since Lyndon Johnson.

1966 – Shure introduced the SM58. This became the standard vocal microphone of popular music. It is the best-selling microphone in Shure’s history. Ironically, the SM57 and SM58 were designed by an engineer who disliked rock ‘n’ roll. He could not have imagined the depth of the contribution he was making to the genre.

1964 – Shure introduced the first of its V15 Cartridges. These became the standard of comparison with all other products of the time. By the 1970s, the company had evolved into a manufacturer of expensive, high-end, audiophile stereh4 components, and the V15 was the showpiece of the line. Shure continued to supply its phono cartridges to most leading makers of stereo equipment. By the 1970s, with Baby Boomers reaching adulthood, phonograph sales were hitting all-time highs. At their peak, the company produced a line of approximately 40 different cartridge models ranging in price from $20 to $150. So profitable was the line in the 1970s that Shure focused most of its energies on phonograph cartridges during the decade. Shure constructed a plant in Phoenix, Arizona, specifically for the manufacture of phono cartridges.

In the 1980s the CD player was introduced and phonograph sales plummeted. Shure’s cartridge segment, which had grown 700 percent in the 1970s (comprising 67 percent of the firm’s business), had fallen to 16 percent by the mid-1990s. The market shrank so rapidly that the company was in danger of going out of business. In response, Shure shifted focus again, largely abandoning its old consumer base and focusing on sound professionals. It expanded its selection of products for broadcasters, introducing the Field Production line of sound mixers for the Electronic News Gathering (ENG) markets. It also began marketing its microphone lines to music stores.

© 2009, Leonard Wyeth

Paul Wilbur Klipsch (3/9/1904 – 5/5/2002)

Paul Wilbur Klipsch changed the way we listen to music.

Klipsch’s destiny may have been in his blood. His father was an instructor of engineering at Purdue University in Lafayette Indiana. Surrounded by engineers and an educational environment, Paul absorbed it all, including the drive to be an engineer. His father died young, leaving Paul at age 12. Klipsch and his widowed mother moved to El Paso New Mexico.

Paul had an interest in music and took up the cornet. This was a way into the music crowd in high school and later served him well to join the university band. It was the time spent playing music in college that Klipsch credits with developing a love of music, arranging and an appreciation for listening to all forms of music.

Klipsch built his first speaker at age 15 from a mailing tube and a discarded set of earphones.

After graduating from El Paso High School, he enrolled in New Mexico State University. Following his graduation he went to work for General Electric and designed radios. The designs were good and helped GE sell them to RCA. In 1928, at age 24, Klipsch answered a notice posted on the lunchroom bulletin board to work in Chile for 3 years repairing and maintaining railway locomotives. Having learned the advantage of getting the best job possible by more education, he decided to return to school at Stanford for a Masters Degree. He followed the new degree with a job as a geophysicist with a Texas oil company. As the 1930s came to a close, the winds of war were blowing overseas and Paul knew that he was likely to serve. He also knew that he could be proactive and enlist in the Army as an engineer. He served in World War II and achieved the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.

Working as an engineer on the Army Southwest Proving Grounds in Hope Arkansas Klipsch refined his ideas relating to speaker design and developed a system that reproduced all frequencies equally. He was working within the real-world parameters of the limited electrical power available from the vacuum tube amplifiers. The design problems were: First, Klipsch needed speakers that could work efficiently with the small amplifiers of the day. Second, no single speaker or horn is capable of reproducing all the frequencies within the range of human hearing. It was a problem of physics: a speaker capable of reproducing low notes is not suited for reproducing higher frequencies. This problem might be solved by electronically separating the frequencies into the ranges best suited for certain speakers: High frequencies for small speakers and low frequencies for big speakers, etc. The third problem is size: Low frequencies require a very large horn for efficient and natural sound.

Klipsch developed a horn design for loudspeakers in the early 1940s that solved the problem of efficiency. Now, very small current could create very loud sounds with natural clarity (Patented January 9th 1951). He followed this with a crossover filter network that could electronically separate the frequencies best suited for specific horn capabilities (This was later patented on September 30th 1952). At this point, he had the components – now he needed a design enclosure that would work for all frequencies and be small enough to be practical.

Klipsch designed 3 horns: a small one for the high frequencies, a mid sized horn for the mid-range frequencies and set about trying to fold the largest horn into a shape that could actually fit in a listening space. The last piece of the puzzle was the idea to use the shape of the corner of a room as the last opening or expanse for the folded horns. He built several mock-ups until he was satisfied that the theory actually worked. He sought and received a patent on April 17th 1945. The resulting speaker system is among the most natural sounding and electrically efficient available, even today. The era of critical listening was born. Ironically, the ability to record music that could be used to fully appreciate Paul Klipsch’s invention would not happen for another 10 years.

Immediately following the war he started Klipsch & Associates. The name ‘Klipschorn’ (for the Klipsch Corner Horn speaker system) was coined by a potential customer in New York City. The name stuck. This speaker system is the only one that can claim to have been in constant production for over 40 years with very few design changes.

Paul Klipsch went on to design speaker systems for other applications, including church, commercial, movie theater and home use. The systems: the Klipschorn, the Heresy (named for creatively breaking his own acoustic design principals), the Klipsch Rebel, Shorthorn, Cornwall, La Scala, the Belle Klipsch – can still be found and many are still in production.

© 2009, Leonard Wyeth

Saul Marantz (7/7/11 – 1/16/97)

Saul Bernard Marantz is credited by many with the birth of the high-end audio industry. By combining technical expertise with industrial design, a passion for music and the delight of full and faithful sound reproduction; Saul Marantz came along precisely when an industry and public needed him.

Marantz was the eldest of 3 children, born in New York City. He demonstrated an interest in music and electronics at an early age. One interest seemed to lead to another. The music was magic when played in live performance. The 78 RPM records of the day were a wonderful way to capture the performance and enjoy it later. Each component of the sound reproduction systems appeared to have a profound effect on the listening pleasure. The better the sound quality, the better the listening experience. If the sound reproduction could be improved, it would be very much like finer wine: much more enjoyable.

Over the years, his interests expanded. He became fascinated with photography and the art of dark room development techniques. He also became interested in industrial design: the way objects worked in everyday life: the interface between technology and everyday use. It mattered how something looked and felt – the tactile quality of the machine parts that we touch and how smoothly they operate. His love of music lead him to study guitar and he began to collect Chinese and Japanese art – something that would later influence his aesthetic choices in industrial design. Each new interest informed his next obsession.

He met Jean Dickey in New York City on St. Patrick’s Day in 1939. They were engaged on Valentine’s Day in 1940 and married in October. Dickey had graduated from Vassar College with a liberal arts degree and then attended the University of Minnesota for a graduate degree in Architecture. The Architecture Department Chairman suggested that, as a women, she may not be taken seriously in her chosen career and she left just short of receiving a degree. She spent some time working for a Persian art dealer and then returned to New York City to take an accounting position at Macy’s. Ironically, her proficiency with math (calculus) would later prove to be invaluable to Saul. Her ability to solve complex mathematical problems helped in the circuit design of the ‘Audio Consolette’ – the first Marantz product to go to market.

With the outbreak of war, Saul went to work for the Army transportation service as a civilian. During his tenure there, he earned his Graduate Equivalency Diploma and (despite civilian status) rose to the rank of Major. Following the war, Saul and Jean returned to New York and ultimately settled in Kew Gardens in Queens.

During the late 1940s, they were invited by friends to a meeting of the New York Society of Classical Guitar. The couple was drawn to the remarkable talent of the members and soon joined themselves. Saul started guitar lessons and soon befriended maestro Andres Segovia. Another Guitar Society member: Vladimir Bobritzski later authored “The Segovia Technique” in 1972. In the books preface is the credit: “Saul Marantz, who took most of the photographs and spent hours in the darkroom experimenting with prints to achieve a maximum of brilliance and clarity.” Saul’s photos also appear on the 4 CD set: “Andres Segovia – A Centenary Celebration” MCA (MCAD4-11124).

Saul had an expansive collection of 78 records. They were great performances and certainly delivered pleasurable listening but they didn’t come close to the experience of sitting next to Andres Segovia and truly hearing every nuance of the instrument and expression. There had to be a way to improve the sound reproduction of recorded material to at least approximate the wonder of the real performance. The first Long Playing (LP) records appeared in 1948. They were monaural and better than the 78s. The post war prosperity had created a middle class of working folks with some spare time and discretionary cash to spend. There was interest and a market for better record playing equipment. Companies began to spring up to fill the growing public demand. They included McIntosh Laboratories, Fisher Radio and H. H. Scott – all interested in manufacturing sound reproduction components. Saul tried them all and didn’t much like any of them. He began to build his own.

In 1952, Marantz started with a preamplifier. The original Audio Consolette solved a major problem of the day by providing many different equalization curves options to compensate for the vast differences in recording technique by the many different record companies. It seemed to work and they began manufacturing by hand assembly in their Kew Gardens basement. Marantz cut a deal with Harvey’s Radio store on 6th Avenue in Manhattan to sell the units. The first 100 units sold quickly and demand for more pushed Saul and Jean into establishing the Marantz Company in 1953. They opened a small factory that year in Woodside.

1953 RIAA

1953 was a pivotal year in audio. The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) created a standard for recording equalization regarding records as the recorded media. This meant that all record companies could now use the samh4 standard so that the final product would sound about the same on any playback device (provided the playback circuit used the proper equalization curve for reproduction). Saul understood this very well and created the Marantz Model 1 preamplifier with the new standard as well as options for earlier recordings. To some, this is the birth of High Fidelity.

It was during this period that Sidney Smith appeared at the Marantz house looking for work. He was an electrical engineer from Chicago and a singer. He had moved to New York and seen an ad for the Model 1. He was able to demonstrate his design abilities by showing Marantz how to modify the Consolette’s circuitry to eliminate some noise problems. He joined the company and eventually became the chief engineer. The Model 1 was introduced to the public in 1954.

New designs, revisions to existing designs and expansion into power amplifiers and radio tuners followed. 1958 saw the introduction of the stereo LP. By late 1958 Marantz had coupled monaural preamplifiers and power amplifiers to respond to the new breakthrough but by December he released the first true stereo preamplifier: the Model 7. The introduction was very well received and more than 130,000 units were ultimately sold. The 3-stage phono preamp circuit became known as the ‘Marantz circuit’ and the Model 7 dominated the market for years.

The reputation of Marantz products grew and consequently so did dealer demand. Fisher and H. H. Scott bought faceplates from Marantz so that their tuners would match the Marantz preamps and power amps. Saul, of course, set about researching tuners so that his company could produce their own. Richard Sequerra joined Marantz in 1961 for this effort. He was a well trained engineer with experience in FM stereo broadcast technology. With the help of Sid Smith, Mitchell Cotter and Richard Sequerra, two years of research and development passed and the Model 10 tuner appeared in 1964.

The Model 10B

The Model 10 was groundbreaking. It included an oscilloscope to accurately display the centering of the tuner in a frequency as well as the actual channel separation. Above it all, it was ‘cool’ looking and sexy to operate. It fit the public notion of high-tech, futuristic and precise. In fact, the first 100 or so units had a significant alignment problem that was fixed by the release of the Model 10B.

There was a problem, however: The Model 10B was so expensive to make and so underpriced that it put the Marantz company in financial jeopardy. Saul considered selling the company. Joseph Tushinski, the president of Superscope, expressed an interest. Tushinski, an avid musician, saw value in the brand name and by acquiring an American manufacturer, saw security for his young company. Superscope had a distribution agreement with Sony of Japan for tape recorders in the US. Simply as a distributer, they were vulnerable to takeover from Sony but as a manufacturer were in a bit of a better situation. The sale was finalized in late 1964 for $3,000,000. Saul Marantz stayed on as a director.

By the time of the sale, groups of people with a passion for audio systems called themselves ‘audiophiles’. The most venerable combination of components at the time was arguably: a Marantz preamplifier, amplifier and tuner coupled with a Thorens turntable with a Shure cartridge and new AR (Acoustic Research) acoustic suspension speakers. This was status.

Saul Marantz stayed on as president until 1968 when he retired from Superscope. Forever restless, he co-founded the Dahlquist Company in 1972 and helped develop high quality speaker systems. He retired for a second time in 1978. This was not his last business venture.

Superscope did not turn out to be the best steward for the Marantz brand name. Market conditions, available capitol, the high cost of research and development, and pressure from Japanese low priced products all contributed to the decline of the Marantz brand under Superscope. Over the ensuing years the name was sold and resold. The Marantz name is currently owned by Philips Electronic N.V.

© 2009, Leonard Wyeth

Avery Fisher (3/4/06 – 2/26/94)

Avery Robert Fisher was born in Brooklyn New York as the youngest of six children. His parents: Charles Fisher and Mary Byrach Fisher had come from Kiev, Russia. Charles had a passion for music that expressed itself in a large record collection and insistence that every child learn to play an instrument. Avery chose to learn the violin and was a willing student; absorbing as much as he could. Training in classical music exposes one to the subtleties of harmony and composition. At the very least, it broadens any students appreciation of the sophisticated rhythms and harmonies of the classics. Avery loved the music and was fortunate to be in New York City where he could spend time listening to the live performances of the New York Philharmonic. It would evolve into a life-long passion.

Avery entered New York University in 1924 as a Law student but soon changed his majors to biology and English. He graduated in 1929 and took a job in an advertising firm that included some book publishers as clients. He became interested in publishing and graphic design; particularly in the design of book covers. He left his advertising job in 1932 to join one of the publishers: G. P. Putnam’s Sons. One year later he changed jobs, going to another publisher: Dodd, Mead & Company where he could focus his attention on graphic cover design. He truly enjoyed the work, staying with the firm for ten years. He described his time there and cover design as his “First Love” and continued to dabble in it for many years after he entered the world of high-end audio. Fisher told an interviewer in 1976: “Looking at a beautiful typographical design is like listening to music.” This was quite a statement from a man who was about to dedicate his life to the enjoyment of listening to music.

It was during his time with Dodd, Mead & Company that Fisher began tinkering with radios. He wasn’t satisfied with the sound quality of the radios available at the time and felt that he could improve them. It began as a hobby and slowly began to take over his life. By 1937 he felt that he had succeeded in designing better radio, amplifiers and speakers than readily available equipment and decided to set up his own company and manufacture his designs. There appears to have been a little doubt on his part because he didn’t actually entirely leave publishing until 1943.

Philharmonic Radio & Fisher Radio

The name of Avery Fishers company was Philharmonic Radio. The original vision was small scale: building the kind of equipment that might be found in radio stations or movie theaters for home use. The original demand was a few friends that wanted the kind of stuff that Avery had built for himself. Fisher had surrounded himself with friends of similar interests: music and musical performance. They were impressed with the equipment he had in his house. The more he built, the more people seemed to be willing to buy. In 1945, after leaving publishing, he set up another company and factory: Fisher Radio. He needed electrical engineering talent and knew that good engineers were available in Europe following the war (especially in Germany) where the war-torn economies were lagging far behind the US. European engineers were so underpaid in their homelands that they were easy to lure to the US where they could earn 4 to 5 times the wages. He successfully assembled a team of excellent talent and experience.

Avery Fisher focused on the high-end of the relatively new High Fidelity market. He reckoned that his company could develop a reputation for the highest quality equipment at premium prices. The audio critics agreed and used phrases like: “the Rolls-Royce of sound equipment”. There was plenty of competition which kept the pressure on for innovation. In 1956 Fisher offered the 1st transistor amplifier. In 1958 they followed with the 1st stereo record player and radio combination. Between 1959 and 1961, Fisher led with innovations to their AM-FM radio tuner designs and increased the sensitivity and power of their components.

The 1960’s & Emerson Electric

As the 1960s unfolded and electronic technology accelerated, Japan began flooding the market with derivative products at ever lower price points. Avery Fisher saw the trend and decided to get out of the market while it was still strong. In 1969 he sold the company to Emerson Electric for $31 million. He stayed on with the company for many more years in an advisory capacity but began to refocus his energies to philanthropy.

He started in 1970 by endowing the Avery Fisher Listening Room at the Bobst Library of his al ma-mater: New York University. His most notable gift was an endowment fund given to Lincoln Center that included the Avery Fisher Artist Program: gifts to young American instrumentalists whose achievements have established them as valued members of their profession and career grants to artists for expenses related to their profession.

The most public aspect of his gift was $10.5 million to the New York Philharmonic. The portion of Lincoln Center that houses the Philharmonic was renamed: ‘Avery Fisher Hall’ in 1973. Fisher ultimately succeeded in his desire to bring music and great performances to as many people as possible.

Emerson Electric eventually sold the Fisher name to Sanyo of Japan who still uses it today.

© 2009, Leonard Wyeth

Frank H. McIntosh (1907-1990)

Following 10 years of employment by Bell Telephone Laboratories in Murray Hill, New Jersey during one of the most exciting periods of invention and product development, Frank H. McIntosh developed his skills and talents in electrical engineering and, over time, began to see his future in radio. As World War II approached, he accepted a position as a broadcast sales representative for the Graybar Corporation in California. Having accumulated both electrical engineering and sales experience, he moved to Washington DC and started his own consulting business. He reckoned that the inevitable conflict overseas would require expertise in electronics, radio and radar and his best connections could be established in and around government and military planning.

McIntosh and Ingles

The consulting firm: McIntosh and Ingles (also spelled ‘Engles’) opened in early 1942. They designed radio stations and sound systems. They actively pursued government contracts and contacts. Over time they met Dr. Frank Stanton – then president of CBS, and Leonard Reinsch – the radio advisor to Harry Truman. These connections helped clarify the priorities of the needs of the government and military through the 1940’s (WWII) and into the nuclear age and the cold war. What had started as a focus on the government, however, quickly shifted to the rapidly growing market created by the returning soldiers following the war. The new middle class had an insatiable interest in entertainment, including recorded music and high fidelity systems for the home.

McIntosh hired a young draftsman by the name Maurice Painchaud (Morris) in 1944. Morris would remain with McIntosh through all the changes their company would experience until his retirement in 1992. By that time he had been president since 1989.

In the early 1940s, the radio design and large venue sound systems portion of McIntosh and Ingles business required powerful audio amplifiers with dependable, low distortion specifications. None of the amplifiers available at the time could be depended upon to deliver their published specs. Americas manufacturing capacity was immense due to the industrialization for the war effort: if there was something needed that was not already produced, the reasonable solution was to design and manufacture it yourself. McIntosh figured that he could develop the amplifiers that were needed and would be the first to accurately advertise their capabilities.

The war had accelerated the development of many ideas, devices and processes, leading to the invention of thousand of new products. The world of electronics was expanding daily with new circuits, materials and components that were not available only months earlier. Each new advancement lead to even more breakthroughs. The industry was feeding on itself. The air was alive with competition to be the first to solve any engineering problem. Keeping track of the advances was difficult since new ideas were coming along so quickly. Various magazines popped up to attempt to feed the demand for information. These included ‘Audio Engineering’ (later shortened to: ‘Audio’) and ‘High Fidelity’.

In 1946 McIntosh hired Gordon Gow as an engineering assistant to help him develop his new amplifier concept. Gow had a background in radio broadcast and had been awarded the “Member of the British Empire” for inventions expanding the field of radar and supporting the war effort. Following his military tour of duty he was assigned to the British delegation in Washington DC where he met Frank McIntosh. At the time, he was studying common communication techniques to overcome the inherent difficulties of allied communication between languages and different radio systems and technologies during the war. Both men shared common interests and had similar drive and work ethic. Gow appears to have been interested in staying in the United States to pursue a career and accepted an offer by McIntosh to help develop a new amplifier design.

Together, McIntosh and Gow came up with a new way to balance an amplifier’s output across a full audio bandwidth to speakers of varied load characteristics. The bottom line: an amplifier capable of producing 50 watts across a bandwidth of 20 to 20,000Hz with less than 1% distortion. This was not the most powerful amplifier to date but it was clearly a much higher performance level than others had accomplished. McIntosh and Gow published their results in an article in ‘Audio Engineering’ in December of 1949 titled: “Description and Analysis of a New 50-Watt Amplifier Circuit”. It was the cover story. It wasn’t until mid 1954, following a contest in the January-February issue of ‘High Fidelity’ magazine to name the patented circuit, that “Unity Coupling” was coined for the unique transformer design.

McIntosh Engineering Laboratory, Incorporated

In 1947 McIntosh and Ingles changed its name to McIntosh Scientific Laboratory. Among other things, they evolved into a testing, product development and manufacturing firm. The Unity Coupled transformers, for example, were made exclusively by McIntosh. In January of 1949 the company was properly incorporated and the name changed again to McIntosh Engineering Laboratory, Incorporated. The offices and manufacturing moved from 1213 Wyatt Building, Washington 5, DC to 910 King Street in Silver Spring Maryland.

In 1950, Gordon Gow became the executive Vice President and the company began to flourish (the following list is not a complete list of products but intended as descriptive of significant introductions to the market):

1950

AE-2 Preamplifier

1951

The company moved to 320 Water Street, Binghamton, New York.

McIntosh amplifiers appear in the Allied Radio catalog and the Fort Orange Radio catalog.

1952

McCurdey Radio Industries, Ltd. (Canada) started manufacturing McIntosh equipment under license.

McIntosh exhibited at the 1952 Audio Fair.

50W-2 amplifier

MC-30 and MC-60 amplifiers

C-8 Audio Compensator

F100 Speaker System

1954

McIntosh introduced some recordings as records – short lived.

1957

The company moved to 2 Chambers Street, Binghamton, New York

MR-55 Tuner

C-8 Preamplifier series

1960

MK-30 Amplifier Kit – discontinued 1961.

1962

MX-110 Tuner-Preamplifier

MC-275 tube amplifier

MI-2 Multipath/Tuning Indicator

Introduction of the Panloc system

1963

C-22 Preamplifier

MR-67 and MR-71 Tuners

MA-230 Preamp/Amplifier Combination

1964

C-24 Preamplifier

MI-3 Performance Indicator

1965

MAC-1500 Receiver

1967

MC-2505 Power Amplifier – solid state

McIntosh Autoformer – speaker protection from DC

McIntosh Sentry Monitor – prevent destructive current loads

McIntosh Meter Circuits – peak compensated VU meters

1969

C-26 Preamplifier

1970

ML-1C Speaker System

There are numerous stories of the working environment at McIntosh that tell the story of corporate responsibility and the desire of Frank McIntosh and Gordon Gow to stimulate creativity in a pleasant working environment. Talent was hard to find and harder to replace, particularly after an investment of years of training and working with friends and experienced colleagues. Apparently Frank McIntosh did not like smoking and felt that it was not helpful in the workplace. He would write a check, on the spot, for any employee who would agree to quit smoking. The agreement was: if they started smoking again, they would have to pay him $200. The policy seemed to work. Many of the original McIntosh employees stayed with the company until (and after) Frank’s retirement.

Frank McIntosh chose to invest his money in land. What started as an investment strategy grew into a pastime and then a mission. In 1959 he began buying properties in neighboring towns. As he would acquire adjacent properties, he would spend free time clearing underbrush on forested parcels and planting trees on open parcels; then maintaining them as preserves for wildlife. As preserves, the wildlife was somewhat protected from hunters. At the time of this writing, he had acquired 1,700 acres in New York State as well as 8,000 acres in New Mexico, California and Arizona, and had planted more than 75,000 trees.

In 1977 Frank McIntosh retired and Gordon Gow took over as CEO. Gordon remained in that position until his death in 1989. Maurice Painchaud then took over until 1992.

In 1990 Frank McIntosh passed away. The same year, his company was purchased by Japanese car audio equipment manufacturer: Clarion with the intention of expanding a presence into the car audio business. The McIntosh brand is still used for American based design of high-end audio equipment.

© 2009, Leonard Wyeth

Hermon Hosmer Scott (3/28/09 – 4/13/75)

Hermon Scott was born and raised in Somerville Massachusetts. He entered the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) for electrical engineering in 1926 and received his Bachelors of Science degree in 1930 and a Masters of Science in 1931. He went on to earn a doctorate from the Lowell Technological Institute some years later.

His passion for electrical engineering was clear: over the span of his career he held more than 100 US and foreign patents for original research in the field of electronics. His inventions included the RC Oscillator, the selectively tuned RC circuit, a number of RC filter circuits and the modern sweep circuit. He was perhaps best known for the invention of the Dynaural Noise Suppressor (DNS).

General Radio Company 1931-1946

After graduating from the Lowell Technological Institute in 1931, H.H. Scott went to work for the Cambridge MA based General Radio Company where he stayed until 1946. He used the time to develop his theoretical skills into pragmatic applications. He started as a sales/development engineer and climbed the ladder to become the Executive Engineer in charge of Audio, Acoustic, Broadcast and all related technological developments.

The Technology Instrument Corporation 1946-1947

He left the General Radio Company to form The Technology Instrument Corporation and set up shop in Waltham MA. He had discovered the need for accurate testing equipment throughout the electrical engineering industry. H.H. Scott felt that there was a strong market for a company to manufacture accurate testing equipment and that the new company would give him the manufacturing flexibility to experiment with all sorts of new equipment ideas.

His first product was the Type 910-A Dynaural (Dynamic) Noise Suppressor. It was a 19″ rack mounted piece of equipment intended for the radio broadcast industry that would allow radio stations to broadcast more recorded material from old 78 RPM disks. This would reduce their dependence on broadcasting live performances with all the related technological and practical difficulties including production costs. It worked – and the new company was successful in patenting and then sub-licensing the DNS technology to other manufacturers. These included EMI (Electric and Musical Industries – of Parlaphone and Beatles fame) and Fisher Radio Corporation. This also proved to be quite profitable.

H. H. Scott Incorporated 1947-

With the initial success of the Technology Instrument Corporation, Hermon Scott wanted to branch out into the new High Fidelity market that showed a lot of potential for invention, innovation and profit. H.H. Scott was incorporated in 1947 to manufacture high fidelity equipment and moved into an old shoe factory in Cambridge MA.

The first product was a fully integrated amplifier with phonograph preamplifier circuits: the model 210-A. It incorporated a simplified 3 tube DNS circuit and was intended for the emerging consumer market of returning World War II soldiers.

Scott was one of the first to endorse and develop high fidelity radio using the FM band. He helped develop FM tuners, like the Model 311-B monophonic tuner of 1956, that elevated FM broadcasts to the realm of consumer Hi-Fi. With the advent of stereo for both recorded media and FM broadcast, H.H. Scott was the first to offer a FM Multiplex Stereo tuner in 1961: the model 350-A. The quality and innovation was readily acknowledged by Scott’s contemporaries including Saul Marantz. Marantz worked out a deal with Scott to allow his model 350-A to be fitted with a Marantz faceplate to aesthetically fit with other Marantz preamps and amplifiers of the period.

In late 1957 H.H. Scott built and moved into a state of the art manufacturing and research facility in Maynard MA on Powder Mill Road. Scott found and employed an engineer by the name Daniel R. Von Recklinghausen who would help develop some of the most interesting products of the company. He ultimately became the Chief Research Engineer of H. H. Scott. Their approach was to design the best circuits they could, without regard for cost or manufacturing limitations. In the end, they felt that the ends would justify the means: if the products were good enough, the public would buy them. If they were very expensive, the market may be limited, but the reputation that the products would bestow on the company would be worth it if only in the advertising of comparisons to all other available products. The approach worked and the products were wonderful, desirable and well respected.

The 1960s brought industry-wide change. The rapid growth of the Japanese electronics manufacturing and importing of solid state equipment placed strong downward pressure on consumer prices. With waves of inexpensive foreign electronics flooding the US market, the profit potential of further innovation came to an end. The high-end market was too small to continue to support it.

In 1973 H.H. Scott Inc. was bought by Electro Audio Dynamics of Europe. The American operations were relocated to Woburn MA. In 1985, the brand name was sold to Emerson Electric.

© 2009, Leonard Wyeth

Henry Kloss (1929-2002)

Henry Kloss didn’t see the value of graduating with a physics degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1953. There was too much going on. The innovations and advances in electronics published every month in magazines focused on the electrical engineering market were irresistible. The possibilities seemed endless. The reproduction of sound had become a national pastime. With the development of vinyl long playing records, great musical performances were available to all in the comfort of their suburban living rooms. Even suburbia was new; populated by willing young consumers, back from the war and full of worldly thoughts and interests. They had extra money and were willing to spend it on new stuff. Engineers could sense the opportunities. It was a brave new world to those interested in invention and developing new ideas into practical applications.

In the spring of 1954, Kloss had abandoned his education to build Baruch-Lang speakers in his Cambridge MA workshop. There was money to be made by assembling the speakers for the new HiFi market and selling them by mail order. He heard about some experiments being performed by one of his former teachers, now at NYU, involving the use of air to improve the low end response of speakers. The work was being done by Edgar M. Vilchur.

To get low frequencies out of a speaker required either a great deal of power or a very large diaphragm (or equivalent horn). The power was not easily generated by affordable tube amplifiers of the day. Movie theaters could afford the space for very large speaker enclosures and powerful amplifiers, but they were certainly not practical or affordable for residential use. To accurately reproduce frequencies below 50 Hz (+/-) would need either a very large enclosure (about 14 feet tall) or a long horn – approximately 13 feet long with a large final diameter. Paul Klipsch had developed an excellent solution to the problem by folding a horn into a corner enclosure. The system worked very well but was still quite large.

The other problem is that low frequencies require the cone of a speaker to move relatively long distances to replicate long (low) sound waves. In order to be responsive, the cones needs to spring back to it’s neutral position quickly in order to produce the next tone. The stronger the springs used, the more power is required to move the cones against the force of the “springs”. The cones were suspended as freely as possible to reduce resistance. This included allowing the air to move freely on both sides of the cones. This created yet another problem: if the negative wave from the back of the cone was truly equal to the front wave, they could cancel each other.

Edgar Vilchur came up with a solid idea: build the speaker cone with minimal ‘spring’ and seal the speaker enclosure. If the air was entrapped, it would act as the cone spring. In addition, a sealed enclosure allowed no rear waves to escape and cancel the frontal sound. He built some mock-ups for demonstrations and pitched the idea to several of the major speaker manufacturers of the day. None were interested.

Henry Kloss heard about Vilchur’s efforts and let him know that he was interested. They got together and listened to the prototypes. Among the LPs that they used for the demonstration was an E. Power Biggs record with massive organ pedal tones. Kloss understood the possibilities immediately and offered to help with the design refinements and start building the speakers in his Cambridge workshop.

AR Corporation – Acoustic Research – 1954

A partnership was formed between Kloss, Vilchur and a physicist friend Tony Hoffman in the spring of 1954. Kloss managed to raise about $4,000 and Vilchur contributed another $2,000 – enough to get started. Henry devoted all his time to the project and they pressed to develop a working model by September for the New York Audio Show. The result was the AR-1 and it was barely ready in time.

The AR-1 was demonstrated to all who would listen at the New York Audio Show. The critics appeared to be puzzled: they didn’t immediately see the advantage of a compact speaker system. Bigger is always better – right? The basis for their concern had to do with efficiency: the air-suspension system needed a bit more power than traditional systems. Despite their concerns, they acknowledged that the new design “established a new industry standard for low distortion bass.”

The public, on the other hand, could easily see the advantage of smaller speaker systems with exceptional linear sound. The affordable amplifiers of the day produced about 40 to 50 watts – beautifully suited to the task of driving the new systems. They sold as quickly as AR could build them. The AR-2 followed with a lower price tag of $89 each and sold even better. The AR-3A introduced the dome tweeter and the industry exploded.

KLH – 1957

In 1957 Henry Kloss left AR to start KLH with Malcolm Low and J. Anton Hofmann (son of the pianist Josef Hofmann). Both Hofmann and Malcolm had been investors in AR and followed Kloss to the new venture. The idea was to continue to develop high quality audio products at affordable prices. Kloss wanted to appeal to the mass market. Kloss continued to refine his speaker designs with the development of the KLH Model 5 and Model 6 acoustic suspension systems. He also focussed energy on developing a small affordable table radio with exceptional sound capitalizing on the availability of quality FM broadcasts. Because of the broad frequency response capabilities of FM, Kloss reckoned that a table radio could be well matched to the new medium. He understood the speaker side of the equation and only needed to improve the selectivity of the FM radio. The result was the KLH Model 8.

It was about this time that transistors became available. They required less space and power to operate than tubes, produced far less heat and were capable of generating far more power. Kloss saw the possibilities again and set out to produce the first compact, complete stereo system: radio, phonograph, preamplifier and amplifier, all in one enclosure. The result was the KLH Model 11 portable phonograph.

Advent – 1967

In 1967, Henry Kloss started his own company: Advent. The first issues of a new audio magazine: The Absolute Sound, featured a pair of the new Advent speakers on the cover. They were the standard of the era – well designed, simple, small enough to fit in any living room but large enough to provide massive sound. The original offering was simply called the Advent Loudspeaker and had a dual driver system including a 10″ acoustically suspended woofer. This later became known as the Large Advent when Kloss introduced a smaller version with an 8″ driver called the Small Advent.

Despite the refinements to speaker design that Advent developed, Kloss was beginning to direct his design energies to a new project: projection television. Kloss imagined television that could provide the kind of impact that was only found in movie theaters. The sound side of the equation had been solved, now he needed to develop a way to project the TV image to a large screen. Bear in mind, the VCR had not yet been developed. Kloss imagined the impact of regular broadcast television as a large screen experience.

The original Advent TV projectors worked. The Advent Video Beam 1000 was introduced in 1972 and intended for the residential market. They were rather large, needed to be in a fixed location and angle and were not as bright as hoped. They were also expensive. Most importantly, however, they did work – and the impact was strong. The first installations were bars and public places for sports broadcasts. They were not quickly accepted in the residential market. The expense was the primary factor. Most importantly, the technology was good and allowed room for further development.

Kloss Video Corporation – 1977

Henry Kloss pressed forward to develop the Novatron tube. This began to resolve the focus, brightness and stability of the video images. His timing was good. In 1973, Ampex had developed the A standard for 1″ video tape recording – the original VTR. Sony had been working on their own proprietary system: Betamax and released a videocassette recording format in 1975. The Japanese corporation JVC, in direct competition with Sony, released their recording format in 1976: VHS. The Kloss video projection system was ready for the new video formats and the concept of home theater was born. The advances kept coming: in 1978 ‘Discovervision’ was the new laserDisc technology for video images. It was the precursor to Compact Discs: CDs.

Advent and Compact Cassettes

In 1962, Royal Philips Electronics Incorporated (Denmark) had created a small cassette container for magnetic tape intended for the business dictation market. The tape spools were sized for convenience, not optimal sound reproduction. The small cassettes intrigued Kloss. If they could be made for better fidelity, they could work in all sorts of applications. The smaller the medium, the greater the opportunities for public applications. The cassettes could be fitted with quality tape and the length was sufficient to accommodate 45 minutes of recording per side – enough for a normal record album. The problem was the slow tape speed. Slow speed meant lower overall frequency response and a greater amount of wow and flutter. To make matters worse, the tape hiss at the slow speeds was very high. These concerns had no bearing on the dictation market but were critical if the cassettes were used to reproduce music.

Henry Kloss knew of work that was being done in California by Ray Dolby for the movie industry. Dolby had developed circuits that artificially exaggerated the higher frequencies before recording onto tape. The magnetic tape was quite good at reproducing high frequencies, so capturing the exaggerated sounds was simple for the medium. On playback, another circuit was used to essentially turn down the treble the precise amount that equalled the original exaggeration. By turning down the treble, the tape hiss disappeared but the recorded signal sounded normal.

Kloss reckoned that if he could license the Dolby technology, he could apply it to compact cassettes for music reproduction. He knew he could solve the mechanical tape problems with quality tape machines. He also knew that newly developed magnetic oxide formulations had improved the frequency response of magnetic tapes. The new formulations could also be used for the cassettes. Kloss had to convince Ray Dolby that it was worth his while to license the technology. He did.

The Advent Model 200 was the first compact cassette recording and playback device to incorporate Dolby B noise reduction systems. This was quickly followed by the Model 201 and then the 201A. The door was now open to use the new systems at home, at work, in the car and ultimately in pocket sized personal stereo devices. The door was also open for a recording industry to grow utterly paranoid about the ease of copyright infringement.

Cambridge Soundworks – 1988

Henry Kloss was independent. He loved the act of invention and loved the collaboration of assembling different new technologies, but he apparently didn’t like retail dealers. Each of his businesses depended on the distribution and sales networks of others. Except, of course, for the original mail order business he had in Cambridge when he collaborated with Edgar Vilchur. His reputation and the public perception of his products rested in the hands of retail dealers that did not always act with his company’s best interest at heart.

To solve this, Kloss started Cambridge Soundworks. The new company would only sell directly to the public by telephone and mail. The company was well underway before the age of the internet made the new retail model even more efficient.

Kloss went back to his roots. One of the first new products was the Model 88 table radio incorporating all he had learned from previous ventures. The new speaker systems he developed were satellite systems with 2 small midrange / tweeters independent of a single (or double) subwoofer. It was now easier than ever to incorporate good speaker systems into any sized room without the visual impact of large speakers. He also developed in-wall speaker systems and served as an outlet (dealer) for amplifiers and other electronics that he felt were suitable to his speaker systems.

Other offering include high quality speaker systems for personal computers.

Henry Kloss left the company in 1996 and sold Cambridge Soundworks in 1997 to Creative Technology.

Tivoli – post 1997

Kloss was approached by Tom DeVesto to press one more advance on the table radio concept. DeVesto had been a co-founder of Cambridge Soundworks. Using the new technologies that allow cell phones to deliver clean, clear sound, Kloss incorporated the new circuits into a smaller table radio. The product sold for around $99 and was built to last.

Henry Kloss died in 2002 of a subdural hematoma. The story goes that his house was sold to new owners with the basement still full of Kloss’ accumulated electronics lab equipment. This was the equipment that he used for many (or most) of his advancements. The equipment was supposedly discarded as salvage.

© 2010, Leonard Wyeth