Monday, August 15, 2011

Birth Of The Microphone

Carbon-Button Microphone
The Carbon-Button Microphone
I was recently turned on to a great Wired post about "The Birth Of The Microphone: How Sound Became Signal." You can read the entire thing at the previous link, but below are a few things that I found especially interesting.
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    The drum-like device on the left is a carbon-button microphone, patented by Emile Berliner in 1877. It was one of the first ever created and by far the most usable.

    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.

    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 nor Edison 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
    Berliner Sits In Front Of His Carbon-Button Mic
    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.


    Phillips Thomas
    The "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.


    Dictaphone
    The Dictaphone
    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.
    Hal Totten, 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.
    Janet Flanner
    Janet Flanner Speaks Into An RCA 77
    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.
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    3 comments:

    noise said...

    wow - the first of your posts that actually made me laugh out loud.

    "... 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."

    and I thought my band "Surface Noise" was cool when we released an 8-Track of "Copy Cat Suicide" in the early 90's.....

    Unknown said...

    Great photo of Phillips Thomas and his mic; where did you find that? A friend recreated one of these many years ago, recorded an orchestra with it. Sadly, the tape went missing.

    Bobby Owsinski said...

    Found it in the link at the top of the post.

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