In 1877 Edison records a barely recognizable rendition of Mary Had a Little Lamb on to a strip of foil drawn past a vibrating needle, within two years the entire world knows about his "talking machine." In 1878, an American named Oberlin Smith considers the possibility of magnetically recording the current fluctuations produced by the still cutting-edge telephone on to a steel medium. Ten years later the idea has gone no farther than an experimental model which Smith considers a dead end and publishes little about. He releases the patent caveat to the public, and publishes all the details he has found in the journal Electric World. The so-called "Electric World" of 1888 ignores his work completely.

Ten years later a Danish inventor named Valdemar Poulsen builds a device, possibly without any knowledge of Smith's work, which uses magnetic induction to record a line-level telephone signal on to a steel wire. The Telegraphone is patented throughout Europe and the US as a device for recording missed telephone calls for later playback. That's right kids, the first answering machine hit the market in 1900 at the International Exhibition in Paris, where the earliest extant magnetic audio recording is laid down by Emperor Franz Josef of Austria. Some versions, like the one shown there, use wire wrapped helically around a turning cylinder. Other versions would be even more instantly recognizable in purpose -- two reels, a read-write head, and a couple of switches, all cased in varnished walnut with stylized, post-Victorian gold-leaf type printed on the front.

These machines have the unfortunate limitation of being able to use only the amount of amplification that could be done with a pairing of inductance coils, which works fine for listening to a small speaker pressed to the ear, but not at all for loudspeaker amplification. When the triode vacuum tube is invented in 1906 (or 1907, my sources vary) it makes possible true electronic signal amplification. Later, in 1917, the condenser microphone is postulated, which will allow for fairly uniform sensitivity over the entire sound spectrum, and all the pieces are in place for modern analog sound recording.

1918 sees a German named Curt Stille pair this amplification technology with a Telegraphone, and in 1925 he begins to sell it as the Dailygraph. It is marketed as both an answering machine and for dictation, a market cornered much earlier by Edison's wax cylinders. One source says that a later incarnation of the device would use interchangeable cartridges to hold the wire medium, a precursor to the audio cassette of 1965 and the VHS cassette of 1976. Little more innovation is done on steel wire recording, though by the thirties Bell Laboratories and the British Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company are doing do major development and supplementary research on the devices.

Meanwhile, in Germany, I.G. Farben is doing their own research on magnetic recording media, and has hit upon the idea of using a coated paper tape rather than a wire or a steel tape. The first patents for this process were granted to Dr. Fritz Pfleumer in 1928, and in 1930 BASF (part of the I.G.) develops a cellulose acetate tape and the chemical process used to bind iron oxide -- rust to the rest of us -- to it. In 1934 BASF ships the first 50,000 meters of this magnetic tape to researchers. A mass-produced recording device for this tape, the Magnetophon K1, and the tape itself are presented to the public in the 1935 Berlin Radio Fair.

This machine and its successors are installed almost immediately at all German RRG radio stations, but is ignored outside of Germany, possibly due to the horrid sound quality of the early versions. I.G. Farben continues research though, and with an improved magnetic medium and high bias recording process, truly modern, Hi-Fi, reel-to-reel analog recording exists by the early forties.

While British and US (and Japanese as well) interests are also doing research in these areas, during WWII the allies are confused by the uses to which the Germans have put their technology. For the first time recordings can be done to such fidelity that it is impossible to tell where Hitler is broadcasting from by triangulating the transmitter's position, as the transmitter would just be playing back a taped recording. Also confounding is the sudden ability of German broadcasters to broadcast the same concert from several stations at once in synch.

After armistice the allies, in particular a Signal Corpsman named John Mullin, recover this advanced audio technology, and bring it it to their home countries for use and research. Among the users of recovered German tape is Bing Crosby, who hires Mullin uses one of the machines to record and re-broadcast his popular radio program. This is the first use of tape recording in American broadcasting.

Little innovation follows besides a few changes in tape size and magnetic medium. Phillips comes out with the audio cassette in 1965, which they do not collect royalties for, ensuring that it becomes the amateur and journalist recording standard, replacing reel-to-reel in many applications over the next twenty-five years. Interestingly, the 8-Track format is also released this year, quickly becoming more of a joke than a standard. While commercial albums are released on Phillips standard cassettes, they never replace the LP (and later the CD) for most music listeners.


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