Recording the sound of a human voice first became of interest to scientists in the 1870s, but wasn’t truly accomplished until Thomas Edison revealed his tinfoil phonograph. The 1887 revelation consisted of nothing more than a piece of etched tinfoil wrapped around a rotating cylinder, and looked far too simplistic to perform the lofty feat of which its inventor claimed it was capable. Skeptics were quickly silenced by the machine’s playback of “Mary had a Little Lamb”, officially making the phonograph the first device to record a human voice and play it back in perfect replication.
Despite its resplendency, the tinfoil phonograph was not the first device to produce the physical etchings of a human voice. That particular discovery had been made much earlier, in 1850 by Leon Scott. His device, known as a phonautograph, used a technique known as lateral vibration to create visual representations of human vocals. Speaking into the broad end of a horn, vocals would travel throughout the horn towards the narrower end, and be translated into an observable pattern. Scott had no interest in a
playback, his lateral translation was to be used solely for human speech studies. Inadvertently, he had laid the foundations for musical recording.
Circular recordings (like the CDs and vinyl records we all know today) occurred in 1887, with Emile Berner’s gramophone. While Leon Scott had used darkened glass for his visual recordings, Berner was in search of something sturdier. Trial and error of a few different materials eventually led him to zinc, which, when coated with a beeswax and cooled gasoline solution, could effectively capture, maintain, and play musical and vocal sound patterns. Berner was also the first to soak these zinc discs in acid baths in order to imprint the final etchings onto the metal plate: a manufacturing technique that is still used in modern vinyl.
The late 1890s up to 1950 was dominated by a different type of coating: shellac. The base
material was rather brittle, strengthened with a hard shellac resin and, once again, imprinted with reproduced etchings for playback. These records were nicknamed “78s”, referencing their 78 RPM rotation speed. These shellac 78s were the first mediums to be used in electronic recording. Beginning in 1925, microphones replaced the outdated acoustic horns, translating sound waves into an electric current, while the stylus creating visual etchings was commanded by amplifiers rather than Leon Scott’s lateral vibration principles. A few years later the economic stress of WWII caused a number of materials to be in short supply, included shellac resin. Upon this discovery, many manufacturers used vinyl as a substitute, and, overtime, it was found to have greater durability and be much easier to produce in great quantities. Vinyl surfaced as the number one recording medium, still used worldwide even after decades of musical and technological evolution.
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