For the vast majority of human history, no sound could be recorded. That’s a breathtaking amount
of music, speech, and audio that’s simply been lost forever, or only retained in written records. But
starting from just 160 years ago this all changed, causing a dramatic revolution in the way we live
our lives, experience culture, and enjoy music.
This transformation began with the introduction of the phonautograph, which was invented by
Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville in 1859. It didn’t have a great deal of practical use for most
people, as it could only record sound waves but not reproduce them. Instead, he used the invention
as a lab instrument to study sound.
The audio revolution began in force with Thomas Edison’s better known phonograph, which arrived
on the scene 18 years later in 1877. For the first time ever, sound could be played back and this
opened up a world of possibilities. He achieved this by storing the sound in hollow wax cylinders.
Edison initially believed that the best market for this invention would be business communication,
but musical recording proved to be the real selling point, giving people the chance to listen to music
at home for the very first time. This was essentially the genesis of the music industry that still exists
However, even the phonograph’s sound quality was very poor and it was difficult to produce the
cylinders in large volumes. Only about 25 copies could be made from any one recording, at which
point the original would be too worn down. This meant that to make 500 cylinder records (hardly
enough to get anyone a platinum album), the performers would need to perform a track 25 times in
front of 20 phonographs!
So how did get from this to being able to store thousands of tracks on our smartphone and play
music on demand whenever we like? Huge technological developments throughout the 20 th century
helped audio recording technology to progress in leaps and bounds, including electronics, magnetic
tapes and digital encoding.
To help you learn more, McGowan Transcriptions have put together the following infographic which
covers the fascinating history of audio recording and its influence on the music industry.