History of recorded music timeline

1857 – Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville invents the Phonautograph in Paris. Twenty years before Edison invented the recording process, Frenchman Leon Scott de Martinville invented a device for recording sound. He called it the Phonautograph and patented it on March 25, 1857. It did what it said on the tin and recorded sound, tracing the shape of sound waves as undulations or other deviations in a line traced on smoke-blackened paper or glass. What it didn’t do was play sound back which may be why history is relatively silent about the Phonautograph…….until 2008 when a group of US researchers from the First Sounds Collective digitally converted the phonautograph recording of Au Clair de la Lune that de Martinville made on April 9, 1860 and it is the earliest recognisable record of the human voice and the earliest recognisable record of music.

1877 – Charles Cross invents the Paleophone. Paris was clearly the centre of the world in the early days of sound recording. It was there that Leon Scott de Martinville invented his  Phonautograph to capture sound onto paper in 1857 and 20 years later Charles Cros took the process forward by working out how to record sound onto a cylinder by tracing oscillations using a screw. In April 1877 he wrote a paper describing his thesis and submitted it in a sealed envelope to the Academy of Science in Paris. Before he got a chance to build a prototype, a hard working inventor by the name of Thomas Edison living thousands of miles away in the USA beat him to it. Edison had been independently considering the same problem and in late 1877 he built a machine that recorded and played back sound which he called a Phonograph. Edison became world famous whilst Charles Cros is largely forgotten.

1878 – Thomas Edison perfects a cylinder based Phonograph that he invented the previous year. It expanded on the principles of Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville‘s phonautograph and recorded sound onto a tinfoil sheet phonograph cylinder, and could both record and reproduce sounds. His first recording? It was the nursery rhyme “Mary’s got  little lamb.”He also sets up the Edison Speaking Phonograph Company in the same year.

1880’sCharles Sumner Tainter and Chichester Bell working under Alexander Graham Bell at his Volta Labaratory improved the phonograph cylinder including developing wax covered cardboard cylinders, ultimately creating a new form of recording machine: the Graphophone.

1887 – Emile Berliner changes the game by inventing the gramophone. Briefly based on cylinders, Berliner changed his methodology in 1888 to use discs with imprinted grooves on the flat side of a disc rather than the outside of a cylinder. He initially envisioned his invention would be a toy.

1888 – Columbia Records is born out of Alexander Graham Bell’s Volta Graphophone Company. Columbia Records named after its home state, broke away from the North American Phonograph Company selling records and phonographs manufactured by Columbia itself.

1889 – William Barry Owen and Trevor Lloyd Williams register the Gramophone Company in London.  On February 23rd 1889 William Barry Owen and Trevor Lloyd Williams registered the small, private Gramophone Company.  Trevor Williams was a young lawyer working in the same hotel where Owen was staying in London.  American born Owen was in London with the aim of securing large amounts in funding and investment to set up The Gramophone Company in the UK, however Owen didn’t have much luck with his high profile visitors and English businessmen so in a final attempt he leant a gramophone to his lawyer – Trevor Lloyd Williams.  Williams was unimpressed by the new technology at first but became convinced of the future success of The Gramophone Company after a visit to meet the gramophone inventor himself, Emile Berliner, in Washington D.C.

 1898 – Magnetic recording is demonstrated in principle by Valdemar Poulsen in his Telegraphone.  Poulsen obtained a Telegraphone Patent in 1898, and later developed other magnetic recorders that recorded on steel wire, tape, or disks.  None of these devices had electronic amplification, but the recorded signal was strong enough to be heard through a headset or transmitted on telephone wires.  In 1900 at the World Fair in Paris, Poulsen had the chance to record the voice of Emperor Franz Josef of Austria which is widely believed to be the oldest surviving magnetic audio recording.

1902 – Successful moulding processes for cylinder recordings are developed and mass production begins.  Previously only several hundred saleable cylinders could be made from each recording, so the talent was booked for marathon sessions, hours long to create as many master copies of the recording as possible.

1904 – Enrico Caruso becomes the first super star recording artist. First recorded by the Gramophone Company, Caruso went on to make over one million pounds in royalties as a result of his contacts with the Gramophone Company.

1917 – First jazz recordings are made. The Original Dixieland Jazz Band made the music’s first recordings early in 1917, and their “Livery Stable Blues” became the earliest released jazz record.  The band was made up of five musicians who had previously played in the Papa Jack Laine bands, a diverse and racially integrated group of musicians who played for parades, dances, and advertising in New Orleans.

1920 – First electrical recordings are made by scientists at the Bell Laboratories in the United States. The first electrical recording issued to the public was of November 11, 1920 funeral services for the Unknown Soldier in Westminster Abbey, London.  The microphones used were like those in contemporary telephones. They were inconspicuously set up in the abbey and connected by wires to recording equipment in a vehicle outside.  Although electronic amplification was used, the resulting audio was weak and unclear.  The novel procedure did, however, allow a recording to be made which would otherwise not have been practical in those circumstances

1925 – The invention of electrical recording allows all the major labels to start using microphones in studio sessions. The clear tone compared to acoustic recordings meant that acoustic recordings could no longer compete with their electrically recorded counter parts, so all the major labels moved over to electrical recordings.

1928 – Fritz Pfleumer develops magnetic tapes for sound recording in Germany. The tapes become widely used over the next decade with almost all studios adopting the new technology by 1935.  In 1927, after experimenting with various materials, Pfleumer coated thin paper with iron oxide powder using lacquer as glue.  He received a patent in 1928 for magnetic tape recording and on 1 December 1932 Pfleumer granted AEG the right to use his invention when building the world’s first practical tape recorder.

1929 – Flat discs become very popular making the cylinder obsolete and production of cylinders stops.

1931 – Alan Blumlein develops binaural sound (now known as stereo sound) at the Central Research laboratories at the EMI site in Hayes.  After a night at the cinema Blumlein was frustrated that the sound from a character on screen could only be heard from a speaker at the other side of the room.  To solve this problem, he invented the audio stereo system which is still in use today.  He began by removing the idea that two loudspeakers represented the listeners’ two ears and instead sought to re-create the features of the sound field including directional information.

1934 – Lacquer coated discs are introduced.  The introduction of lacquer-coated blank discs made instantaneous recording possible for broadcast and home recording. Very soon all the major networks began recording their programs on 16” lacquer-coated aluminium discs that could hold up to 15 minutes of audio recording on a side.  Using lacquer coated discs was used well into the 1970’s when it was replaced by magnetic tape recording.

1934 – Talking Books for the blind. The American Federation for the Blind collaborated with the Library of Congress and RCA Victor records to make long playing audio books for the sight impaired.  A year later the Royal institute of Blind People in London introduced their ‘Talking Books’ service.

1940 – Multi track recording developed. The guitarist, composer and technician Les Paul experimented with multi track recordings and his experiments lead to the development of 4 and 8 track recordings.  These were later adopted by all the major studio’s in the 60’s with many of the Beatle’s and Rolling Stone’s Albums being the first to have 4 track records.  Walt Disney’s animated feature Fantasia was one of the first commercial appearances of a four-track record, producing something similar to what is now known as surround sound.

1948 – All the major American labels introduce Vinyl records. (Shellac records are still available.)

1963 – Phillips develops the cassette tape.  Their compact audio cassette was the first to combine to convenience of a tape recording format that did not require manual threading. It took about a decade before cassettes began to dominate the consumer market.

1964 – Vinyl records become the worldwide industry standard. Shellac discs are no longer produced commercially.

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