By Tom Anderson
Before the nineteenth century, there was no means to record a human voice, music or any other sounds. Clockwork technology had gradually given birth to the music box and then the player piano, automated instruments which could play a tune on demand recorded into a form of memory such as a punched tape, but this was not the same as capturing a sound for playback.
The first attempt to do so came in 1857 with the French printer Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville. Scott de Martinville came across diagrams of the human auditory system in scientific works he was printing, and wondered if it it would be possible to emulate the eardrum (tympanum) with an elastic membrane, and the connecting bones (ossicles) with a series of levers. With the help of the instrument maker Rudolph Koenig, he produced a machine that joined this imitation of the human ear to a stiff bristle that inscribed a groove on a cylinder coated with lamp black, the best material he knew of at the time.
Scott de Martinville’s machine was dubbed the ‘phonautograph’, phon- from the Greek word for sound –auto- ‘by itself’, and –graph ‘to write’. It could not play back sounds once recorded, but it had converted the sounds into a visible trace on the lamp black—an analogue of the sound, which would look different for different sounds. Scott de Martinville had the prophetic idea that this could be used to permanently record conversations for business and legal purposes and no-one could argue with the record, unlike a human transcription.
However, such uses lay beyond the capabilities of the technology at the time, and the phonautograph remained a curiosity, used by Koenig and a number of scientists in early attempts to visualise sound waves which ultimately led to the oscilloscope. It was not until the twenty-first century that researchers were able to use computers to reconstruct Scott de Martinville’s original lamp black recordings and produce an attempt at the original sound. This does, however, now qualify them as the earliest ever recordings of the human voice.
A practical means of recording and reproducing sound did not come until Thomas Edison’s phonograph in 1877. At this time another Frenchman, Charles Cros, had already been working on a similar machine, which he dubbed the ‘paleophone’ (‘ancient sound’, as he foresaw the sounds it would record could be heard by future generations), but like Scott de Martinville, Cros was limited by inferior materials. He had the idea of recording his grooves with a metal stylus, like Edison’s own machine, but his recording medium of choice was a metal disc coated with soot, which would not have produced a very high-quality recording.
Edison’s phonograph, meanwhile, scratched its groove into a cylinder coated with tinfoil, later a wax cylinder. Edison, at first, had chosen the cylinder over a disc because of the problems associated with maintaining a consistent recording and playback speed with a disc—as the disc would have to rotate at a different speed for an outer and an inner track to maintain the same experience. His first experiment did use a paper disc, however, so one possibility for alternate history (AH) is that we could have leapfrogged straight into using discs if Edison had focused more on solving this problem early on. Cylinders were a technological dead end due to the far more limited playback time compared to the space they took up.
All these devices are analogue recording methods, i.e. sound hits a diaphragm which vibrates a stylus and scratches it into a surface, converting the sound to a physical analogue (just like Scott de Martinville’s scratches). The process is then run in reverse, and as a playback stylus is steered through the groove of a rotating disc or cylinder, it is vibrated up and down by the scratch and this vibration is transmitted back to the diaphragm, reproducing the sound. This is in contrast to later digital recording methods like the CD, which works on the idea of converting the information in a recording into a digital code (ones and zeroes) to record onto a medium, and then a player reconverting the code back to an electrical signal to be fed to speakers.
From these early beginnings, the technology improved. Chichester Bell and Charles Sumner Tainter developed a version of the machine that used engraving rather than embossing, using the name ‘Graphophone’.
Emile Berliner, a German-American inventor, developed a successful version of the disc medium that Edison had abandoned, and named his patented invention the ‘Gramophone’. The precise application of these terms varies in different countries, with ‘Gramophone’ originally being a protected brand name of The Gramophone Company in the UK in 1887 for example, but this was overturned by a court in 1910 which recognised it had become a generic term. In America at the same time, ‘talking machine’ almost became the generic term, as in the name of the Victor Talking Machine Company established by Berliner’s former engineer Eldridge R. Johnson. However, the Victor company then invented a superior gramophone built into a piece of furniture, with an amplifying horn concealed within the furniture’s structure rather than sticking out of the top. This was named the Victrola, and in the US ‘Victrola’ often became used as a generic term thereafter.
From an AH point of view where we are interested in alternate terminology, it is striking that the same names repeat in multiple unconnected attempts at recording technology in this era. ‘Phonograph’, ‘graphophone’ and ‘gramophone’ (the latter from the Greek ‘letter’ + ‘voice’) are obvious terms not only because of the frequency of Greek in invention names from this era, but the fact that they draw on similarities to existing exciting new technologies like ‘telegraph/telegram’ and ‘telephone’. Later on, the more straightforward English ‘record player’ and ‘turntable’ terms came about, the latter emphasising the rotating motion. It would be possible for other terms to arise in other timelines, however. As we have already seen in these articles, one easy way to see this is to look at the our timeline (OTL) names in other languages. Spanish and Portuguese call them by names meaning ‘disc players’, French prefers électrophone, emphasising that electricity was involved in later models, German, Dutch and the Scandinavian languages call them by names meaning ‘plate players’ or ‘platter players’. (The term ‘record platter’ is sometimes used in English to describe the surface on to which the record is placed). Ironically, Greek itself prefers the imported English slang term ‘pick-up’, as does Romanian.
An interesting consequence of these early years is corporate wrangling over a logo which continues to cast shadows to this day. The British artist Francis Barraud produced, in 1899, a painting of his late brother’s pet dog Nipper listening in fascination to a recording of his master’s voice—and His Master’s Voice became the name of that painting. Barraud originally depicted an Edison-style cylinder phonograph, but William Barry Owen of The Gramophone Company (the British affiliate of Berliner’s group, sometimes spelled Gram-o-phone, foreshadowing a tide of similarly named companies and products) suggested his own company’s product, with its prominent golden horn, would stand out better in the painting. Barraud duly changed it, and Owen craftily bought the painting as the company’s new logo.
The logo’s history then becomes very complicated and confusing. In the United States, the Victor Talking Machine Company was eventually bought by the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) in 1929—who also gave their name to the red, white and yellow ‘RCA jacks’ still used as a common audiovisual connector today. RCA inherited the right to use the Nipper His Master’s Voice logo. Though less seen nowadays following RCA’s acquisition by other companies in turn following the 1980s, the dog logo can be seen to this day on old RCA buildings and products in the United States.
Meanwhile, in the UK, the Gramophone Company had begun selling records under the name ‘His Master’s Voice’ or HMV for short. The first HMV shop was opened in London in 1921. When RCA took over the Victor Company (and the Gramophone Company with it), it created the record label Electric and Musical Industries (EMI) which, of course, would eventually become the record label of choice for the Beatles. In 1935, RCA/Victor sold its stake in EMI, but retained the right to the Nipper logo in the Western Hemisphere, a remarkably Treaty of Tordesillas-like partition! EMI retained the rights to the logo in the Eastern Hemisphere, and HMV-branded stores continue to operate in the UK and beyond to this day—though with a troubled business history of late.
Victor had also operated in Japan, as the Victor Company of Japan; worsening tensions between the US and Japan in the leadup to World War II led to this becoming its own independent company—JVC. The legal status of Nipper is particularly confusing in modern Japan, as JVC technically owns it but barely uses it, while HMV maintains stores in Japan but their logo shows a gramophone with no dog. This complex situation means that the Nipper logo means different things in different countries, and is at the same time both one of the world’s most recognisable brands yet one whose identity is least clear.
While all this was going on, of course, many other record labels had sprung up, and technology continued to improve. Earlier records from 1895 on, made of shellac (a resin secreted by the lac bug of South and South-east Asia) had only been able to record four or five minutes of sound on each side of a 12-inch record due to them rotating at 78 revolutions per minute (rpm). Because this usually only meant around two to four songs per record, record companies sold collections of 78 records packaged in a book form—like a photo album. The term album for collection of songs entered the lexicon, and persists to this day, even though the technological need for songs to be collected in this way is long obsolete.
Another possibility for AH—music as we know it would be unrecognisable today if different record formats and materials had been adopted at different times. From the 1950s, shellac became replaced with polyvinyl chloride (PVC or ‘vinyl’ for short). This was a typical 1950s embrace of the new wonder material, plastic, whose downsides would not become apparent for decades to come. Vinyl records, rotating at 33 rpm for a 12-inch long-playing (LP) record (one standard length album on a single disc) or 45 rpm for a 7-inch single, could store far more sound per side than their predecessors. As records have revived of late for a new generation, the term vinyl has increasingly become the term thrown around by young people, as opposed to ‘record’ or ‘LP’.
New materials were joined by new recording methods. From the late 1920s, electric amplification was used for higher sound quality than a simple diaphragm; electrically powered (rather than wind-up) record players became the norm as domestic electricity supplies proliferated; the 1950s brought the marketing term high fidelity (‘hi-fi’) to emphasise improvements to sound reproduction.
One of the biggest innovations came with the introduction of stereo, able to reproduce the effect of someone listening to a sound source with two ears, producing a slightly different sound from two speakers. The concept dates back to nineteenth-century France, where Clément Ader had devised a two-ear telephone system that would allow listeners to listen to operatic performances over the phone (an idea which did not catch on long-term). A number of technologies to create stereophonic records were tried at first. The eccentric American audio engineer Emory Cook devised a system where one audio track (left or right) would be recorded on the outer part of a record and the other half on the inner, with a dual-stylus turntable used to reproduce them both in synch.
Cook was mostly interested in recording ambient sounds, but also used his technique on some music, in particular Caribbean reggae and blues—Cook’s company played a role in bringing these genres to a wider audience. In the end, however, the preferred stereo technique would be that by British EMI engineer Alan Blumlein, who created a system where a single stylus would record one track by up-and-down vibrations and the other by side-to-side vibrations, recording an analogue of both left and right tracks on a single groove. Blumlein’s idea was widely successful, and there was even a brief period of interest in ‘quadrophonic’ records that would feed different sound tracks to four speakers rather than two for full surround sound.
Interestingly for AH purposes, Cook used the term binaural ‘for two ears’ rather than stereo; indeed, stereophonic is a rather strange choice of name as it means ‘solid sound’ in Greek, but Western Electric popularised it in 1927 by analogy to the then-popular stereoscopic image viewers for two eyes. Needless to say, the circumstances of this coining are sufficiently obtuse that ‘stereo’ is not likely to be the established term in any TL with a POD before the 1920s.
Records have had a huge impact on the world, even beyond the obvious areas of music and culture in general. The idea of the turntable platter and the moving arm with its stylus unquestionably influenced engineers coming up with solutions to storing information by entirely different technologies. Listeners could lift the arm manually and, observing the visible divisions on the record into tracks, move it to the start of their preferred song. Could the same idea be refined and used to seek and select data that was part of a huge library?
The most obvious example of this is the record’s 1980s digital successor, the compact disc (CD) which uses a moving laser rather than stylus, and the CD’s own descendants the DVD and Blu-ray disc, as well as its cousin the Laserdisc. But the idea of a rotating disc with a moving read/write head also made sense in other contexts. Magnetic storage media use the same concept: floppy disks have a thin disc made of similar material to VHS tape within their plastic shell, with a metal cover sliding back to allow a read/write head to scan back and forth to find the right track. Even the way the data tracks are organised on the disc owes something to how records work. The traditional hard drive, too, consists of a rotating platter coated with magnetic material and a read/write head moving on an arm that even slightly resembles that of a record player in miniature.
It is remarkable to consider that in the 2010s, as the relentless assault on physical ownership of media in favour of evanescent streaming and downloading is killing the Blu-ray, DVD and CD, as the floppy is long since obsoleted and solid-state media increasingly consigns the moving hard drive to the pages of history, the vinyl record has made a comeback. ‘What are records?’ was once the stereotypical joke about the teenager unfamiliar with past technology, yet it seems now that the record will outlast all the later technologies it inspired. Last, as it was first, the record plays on.