Thursday, January 27, 2011

Birth of the Microphone: How Sound Became Signal


Carbon-Button Microphone

This drumlike device is a carbon-button microphone, patented by Emile Berliner in 1877. It was one of the first ever created and by far the most sable.
Berliner is credited with inventing the carbon-button microphone in 1876. Though there were other microphone technologies in existence, Berliner’s design was more robust than the rest (including a liquid-based mic invented by Alexander Graham Bell). Bell himself was so impressed with the carbon-button that he bought the rights from Berliner for $50,000 (1.1 million dollars in today's money), so he could use it in his telephone prototypes.
Berliner called his microphone a “loose-contact transmitter” because it was composed of two electrical contacts separated by a thin layer of carbon. The “loose” contact was attached to a diaphragm that vibrated when struck by a sound wave. The other was connected to the output.
Unfortunately for Berliner, his patent didn’t survive a legal challenge, which resulted in an 1892 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that gave the credit to Thomas Edison. In fact, neither Berliner or Edisson could rightfully claim full credit  for the carbon-button mic. The idea for it had been around for years before they began their experiments, though it had never been perfected.

Emile Berliner sits in front of his carbon-button microphone. In certain configurations, carbon-buttons can behave as if they have built-in amplifiers, not only converting sound into voltage but also increasing the strength of that voltage before it leaves the mic.
The crude transmitters of the teens and '20s required high-input signals in order to function. Vacuum tubes were new and not in widespread use, and transistors were far in the future. So powerful carbon-buttons were a must.

Mouthpiece Luxury

An early carbon-button microphone created by Emile Berliner sits on the left. On the right is a mouthpiece that could be attached to it — as part of the luxury-option package.

“Ultra-Audible” Microphone

Phillips Thomas invented an “ultra-audible” microphone in the 1920s, while working for Westinghouse Electric. The name derived from Thomas’ claim that the device was sensitive enough to detect vibrations outside the range of human hearing.
Popular Science Monthly speculated in April 1924 that Thomas’ microphone could determine “ultra-audible” bug songs not heard by humans into electrical signals and then light, allowing human observers to analyze the sounds even though they couldn’t hear them.
Thomas’ microphone seems humdrum in light of his other inventionary ambitions. His “vortex gun” was intended to replace conventional smokestacks and diminish low-hanging smog by forming emissions into gigantic smoke rings and blasting them into the stratosphere.
He was also engaged in searching for a means of distributing electric power by radio, and believed that mental telepathy might be achieved by using the appropriate electromagnetic frequencies. Thomas supplemented his practical research with a contribution to the world’s musical culture, the photoelectric marimba, an instrument controlled by flashlights.


The hookah-like tube connects this anonymous businessman to a dictaphone, the first technology for nonprofessional recording, used primarily in offices to take dictations.
Invented by Thomas Edison, the dictaphone uses the same basic principle as a phonograph. Sound vibrates a needle inside the device that cuts a groove into a rotating blank format — in this case a wax cylinder. The cylinder can be played back to reproduce the original sound, and though the quality of audio is horrible, indie bands in search of vintage cred are predicted to release wax-cylinder singles in the near future.


Before the creation of the Federal Radio Commission (precursor of the FCC) in 1927, radio was largely unregulated. Starting a station was simply a matter of purchasing a transmitter and an antenna.
Chicago-based AM radio station WMAQ went on the air in 1922 and continued operating until 2000. Many early stations owned by retailers or newspapers, and WMAQ was owned by one of each: the Fair Department Store and the Chicago Daily News. The station transmitted from inside the store itself, serving as a long-form advertisement and novelty attraction.
The Daily News publishers quickly saw that radio would become a major force in the media, and bought out their partners. In the picture above, a then-standard carbon-button mic is suspended in a shock mount: a set of springs that absorb vibrations that might otherwise be picked up by the microphone.

Hal Totten and Ty Cobb

Hal Totten, who called games for Chicago’s WMAQ during the 1920s, wears a three-piece suit in Comiskey Park. He stands next to Ty Cobb and fellow big-leaguers Eddie Collins and Bill Hunnefield at a game in 1927.
The group is speaking into an early carbon-button microphone which served the crucial dual purpose of transmitting sound and amplifying it. The amplification was essential during the first days of broadcasting, because transmitters weren’t sensitive enough to pick up the output of unamplified microphones.

"Listen: The Women”

Pioneering journalist Janet Flanner reads for the program "Listen: The Women,” broadcast from Paris shortly after the city was liberated in 1944. She’s speaking into an RCA 77 ribbon microphone, a standard of early broadcasting that has become a favorite of modern recording engineers.
Janet Flanner became a contributor to The New Yorker magazine in 1925, and spent 50 years as its Paris correspondent. Her dispatches helped define the “New Yorker style,” covering topics from the 1920s Paris literary scene to the rise of Nazism.
Flanner waited out World War II in the United States, but returned to Paris after the city was liberated. She went back to writing for The New Yorker and created a series of short-subject radio programs for the American audience, titled “Listen: The Women.”
The broadcasts profiled individuals caught in the turmoil of the war, and aired on the Blue Network, an NBC operation that was split off after antitrust litigation. The blue network   eventually became the competing American Broadcasting Company.

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