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Wednesday, December 8, 2010

How Ma Bell Killed Audio Recording

I just read a great article about how the famous Bell Labs, the R&D arm of the original phone company, actually came up with multiple innovations way back in the 30's that could've started the information age some 50 years earlier than it actually did.

The story goes that in 1934, Bell Labs engineer Clarence Hickman  created a phone answering machine that used magnetic tape. Now keep in mind that the first known development of magnetic tape recording was 1935 by BASF, which was kept secret so it could be used by the German war machine. German tape recorders were only discovered by the Allies at the end of World War II. It wasn't until the late 40's that magnetic tape recorders became a commercial product (thanks to, of all people, Bing Crosby and his considerable financial resources) and it wasn't used for computer storage until the early 50's. The first viable tape answering machine came on the market in 1971.

So if Hickman invented a magnetic tape recorder before anyone else, why haven't we heard about it until now. Because Ma Bell, the phone company monopoly, killed it, afraid that such an innovation would hurt their business instead of help it. The execs at the company did such a good job of suppressing Hickman's creation that it wasn't found for 60 years, and only then by a Bell Labs historian.

Imagine what could've been if only the company had been less paranoid. Modern recording technology could've had a head start by at least a decade, if not more.

Read the entire article here.

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1 comment:

steve harvey said...

An interesting story of stifled innovation. The author skimped a little on the research, unfortunately. There were many recording technologies (wax, acetate, wire, paper tape, steel tape, and AEG/BASF's plastic tape) that predated Dr. Hickman's 1934 machine, some by decades. But if Bell hadn't killed Hickman's research things could indeed have been different for the US recording industry.


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