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  History of Audio Players

Tin Foil To Terabytes: How Audio Started Small And Got Big

Nowadays we take recorded music and sound for granted in many ways, because the ease in which we can obtain and listen to our favorite recording artistes and musicians has changed unutterably since the first inception of sound recording. 2012 actually marked the one hundred and thirty fifth year since the first sound recordings were made and in order to celebrate this, here’s a history of how the sounds we love came to be.

History of Audio Players

It all started with a bit of tin foil…

“They all laughed at Christopher Columbus, when he said the world was round. They all laughed when Edison recorded sound…”

These are lines from the memorable song "They All Laughed" which over the years has been covered by many famous stars. Thomas Edison most certainly had the last laugh though. In 1877, he was the inventor that brought us the Phonograph. This very low tech invention for recording sound, was constructed out of a grooved cylinder which was covered in tin-foil. It could effectively pick up and reproduce sounds, but would only last a certain number of playbacks before it was useless and largely unlistenable. The first sound ever committed to recording was a sample ofmEdison himself reading out “Mary Had A Little Lamb”. Here is a reproduction of that recording, which was made in the 1920s, but still gives you a flavor of how exciting a time it was:

Thomas Edison - Mary Had A Little Lamb

It was in 1878 that the first ever piece if music proper was recorded. The cornetist Jules Levy made a recording of the famous US piece “Yankee Doodle”. This is long since lost. However, a recording from an artist called Col.George Gouraud, from the year 1888 which is believed to be the oldest musical recording in existence can still be heard. It is a version of Handel’s Oratorio and can be listened to here:

Col. George Gouraud - Handel's Oratorio

The Gramophone

Just nine years later an inventor called Emile Berliner was given the patent for the creation of something called the flat-disc Gramophone, which made it possible to make multiple copies of recordings for distribution. On a very small scale, this was the beginning of the music industry as we would recognise it today.

Music was recorded onto small discs that were in actual fact around the same size as a modern CD would be. The machine they were played on had to be hand operated and it was really only a piece of curios rather than a serious piece of musical equipment.

Vinyl and more

Thomas Pacconi Turntable System

When the Victor Talking Machine Company came into being at the very turn of the twentieth century they were the first to produce the sorts of records that many of us who are of a certain age would recognise today. They made ten and twelve inch discs that could play sound for up to four minutes at a time, made of shellac.

The music that was made available was usually operatic arias, orchestral works or general classical music. Over the years, as technology developed and musical tastes changed, companies like RCA Victor introduced the vinyl records that we are now familiar with, coupled with the new notion of actually promoting a band or artist on a cardboard sleeve.

The notion of the turntable came about  during World War Two by popular demand of the music buying public who wanted something cheap, yet hard wearing that they could play their vinyl on.  They got their wish because vinyl dominated sales right up until the 1970s when a newer technology caught the public’s imagination.

Cassettes and CDs

The notion of cassettes go back much further than we ever think about. In fact right to the 1920s when AEG, a corporation based in Berlin patented the first “magnetophone machine”. In this clip you can see one being demonstrated:

Demonstration of Magnetophone Machine

In 1947, Bing Crosby was the first major name to experiment with recoding his music on to audio cassette, though these bore little resemblance to the machines we know today. The cassette and cassette deck as we recognise it was first introduced to the public by the company Philips, who exhibited a prototype of the modern version at the Berlin Radio Show. Two years later, the company Grundig introduced the first tape recording machine at the same exhibition.

By 1970 BASF had licensed the patented DuPont scratch guard technology and incorporated it into the manufacture. By 1984 the cassette had superseded vinyl as the preferred method of buying and listening to music, with companies like Sony pioneering the idea of portable music, with the introduction of the Walkman, a means of listening to cassettes or the radio on the move. 

Compact Discs (CD)

Again, it was the combined efforts of companies like Philips and Sony that brought the CD into being, with the first prototype CD released in 1979. The technology was such that it would enable whole albums to be captured on one disc, rather than the laborious nature of vinyl or cassettes which meant that half way through the recording they would have to be turned over.

The first CD players were brought out in the early 1980s and would have cost the purchaser something in the region of $1,500 in today's money. 

The model for how big the CD was actually came about when Sony, as a company insisted that in order for it to become known as a long playing audio medium, it must be able to hold Beethoven’s Symphony Number 9 in it’s entirety. Philips adjusted the original size of the disc from eleven and a half centimetres to twelve for it to do so. By the mid 1980s sales of CDs were beginning to take off, with the album “Brothers In Arms” by Dire Straits being the first to sell over one million copies.

CDs are still a big business today, despite the rise of the MP3 and a brief but unsustainable challenge from Sony’s attempt to broaden the market further with their minidisc system, which as of last year is now largely obsolete.

The rise of the MP3

Even whilst the popularity of cassettes and CDs were on the increase, technology never stopped developing for one moment. In fact, the most popular form of music technology actually began it’s development as far back as 1987 again, in Germany.

MP3 Technology was invented by a company called Fraunhoffer-Gesellshaft. It stands for MPEG Audio Layer 3 and is the industry standard for the compression of music files without any noticeable loss of audio quality enabling them to be played on computers. 

It took until 1996 for the United States to issue a patent on this invention and by 1999, a US indie record label called SubPop were the first to introduce the idea of distributing music for sale in this format. Now, most major companies including giants such as Amazon and iTunes offer MP3 formatted music for sale within their stores.

Anyone who has a phone connection, broadband or a digital music player can listen and download music in digital file format, allowing them to access music whenever they like, wherever they are. MP3 players, iPods and mobile phones that are slimmer that a pack of cigarettes can contain thousands upon thousands of albums.  

Many of the recordings that were first made onto wax cylinders and vinyl at the turn of the twentieth century are actually now becoming widely available in MP3 format, meaning whilst technology has advanced, the music that was known and loved across the three centuries of musical development can be rediscovered and loved once more.


Learn about the evolution and history of audio players and sound technology from the early gramophones, vinyls, cassettes, CDs to modern day MP3 and digital sound players. This article has been provided coursey of Eve Pearce and online store

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