A history of sound recording – Part 1 The beginnings


So as the UK enters the ‘lockdown’ phase of the COVID-19 outbreak we thought it would be worth taking some time to write a few articles for our blog.   What better place to start than the history of sound recording.

The story of sound recording, and reproduction, began in 1877, when Thomas Edison invented the phonograph. In essence, his machine consisted of a sheet of tinfoil wrapped around a cylindrical drum which, when turned by a handle, both rotated and moved laterally. As it moved it passed under a touching metal stylus, attached to one side of a diaphragm. On the other side of the diaphragm was a small mouthpiece into which the operator spoke. The sound-waves focussed onto the diaphragm caused it to vibrate, which in turn caused the stylus to vary the pressure on the tinfoil.

As the drum rotated and moved across the stylus a groove was embossed in the tinfoil consisting of undulations approximating the pressure patterns of the sound-waves. Playback involved placing the stylus at the beginning of the groove made during recording, and winding the cylinder along once again. The undulations in the tinfoil caused the stylus to move in and out, and so the diaphragm to vibrate, which in turn moved the air in the mouthpiece, thus recreating the sound.

The first words ever recorded were ‘Mary had a little lamb’. However to be honest the ‘recorded’ sound was barely audible. but was nevertheless a start.  Obviously it wasn’t impressive enough for Edison as he then moved on to other ideas and invented the incandescent light bulb.

Waxing Lyrical

Some ten years were lost whilst others took up the challenge. Alexander Graham Bell (inventor of the telephone) and Charles Tainter realised that Edison’s phonograph was impractical as it stood. The sonic results were abysmal and the recordings wore out almost immediately. Their development work resulted in the wax cylinder phonograph. A hard-wax removable cylinder replaced the soft tinfoil-covered fixed drum, and the recorder/reproducer moved across the rotating cylinder instead of the other way round. With improvements to the recording and reproducing heads, the sound recorded began to be recognisable.

These developments were not lost on Edison, who turned his attentions back to the phonograph, making further improvements on Bell and Tainter’s work, However, in the meantime, a competitive system had been introduced: the gramophone record.  More about that next time….