A History of Music Technology in the Home

Travel through time and discover the ways in which we listen to music has changed

A compact stereo Hi Fi system, consisting of a radio, a double cassette tape deck, record turntable, amplifier and two speakers. (1990/1999) by TWCMS : 2000.4621Discovery Museum

Explore the collections of Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums and discover how sound technology in the home has developed over 150 years from the tinfoil or wax cylinder played on a phonograph to listening to streamed music from your devices in the 21st century. 

Model of a tinfoil phonograph. by TWCMS : 2017.1169 and John Henry HolmesDiscovery Museum

Tinfoil Phonograph
Although the first known sound recording device was the phonautograph, invented in 1857 by Frenchman, Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville, it wasn’t until Thomas Edison invented the tinfoil phonograph twenty years later that it became possible for a sound to be recorded and then played back.

However, the phonograph was not a commercial success: sound quality was poor and the tinfoil, wrapped around the cylindrical drum, was too easily damaged.

Graphophone by TWCMS : J10457 and Columbia Phonographic CoDiscovery Museum

After winning the French government’s Volta Prize in 1880 for achievements in electrical science, Alexander Graham Bell established The Volta Laboratory in Washington DC, USA.

There, he and his colleagues developed a refined version of the phonograph - the Graphophone. The delicate tinfoil covered cylinder was replaced by a more robust cardboard one now coated in wax and capable of holding two to three minutes of sound.

Gramophone by TWCMS : 1999.1936 and The Gramophone CompanyDiscovery Museum

In 1887, German inventor Emile Berliner (1851-1921), not only invented the gramophone, a device which amplified sound through a flared horn, but also the flat shellac disc or record. Records could now hold longer recordings than their wax cylinder predecessors and, from 1896, could be easily mass produced. In 1898 Berliner’s record company, The Gramophone Company Ltd., was established in the United Kingdom.

Radio (1948) by TWCMS : 2001.5030 and Kolster-BrandesDiscovery Museum

After nearly thirty years of experimentation in wireless telegraphy, the identification of radio waves in 1886 by Heinrich Hertz, and developments in valve technology, radio broadcasting finally became viable in 1920.

Guglielmo Marconi opened the world’s first purpose-built radio factory in Chelmsford, in 1912. Eight years later the first entertainment radio broadcast was heard from the Marconi Research Centre in Writtle, just outside Chelmsford in Essex.

Listening to the radio ‘on the move’ became possible after the invention of the transistor in 1947. The transistor radio was at its most popular In the 1960s and 1970s.

Record player and vinyl record by TWCMS : 2000.5839 and TWCMS : 2000.5829Discovery Museum

Record player
While gramophone technology continued to develop, the next major technical advance was the creation of the Long Play ‘microgroove’ disc developed by Columbia Records in 1948. Longer pieces of music could now be recorded on each side of the record, a format more suited to the classical repertoire and later, to the development of the ‘pop’ album.

Sales of record players dipped during the 1950s in favour of the radio but became popular again in the 1960s with the creation of the automatic turntable and later the reproduction of stereo sound.

Walkman tape player and cassette tape. by TWCMS : 1999.1702, TWCMS : 2000.4626, and SonyDiscovery Museum

Cassette tape players
Cassette tape players were first made by Philips in 1963. Cassettes were originally designed for dictation machines, but it soon became apparent that as sound quality improved there was a wider application.

Smaller and not as fragile as their record counterparts, cassettes could either be pre-recorded or blank. Each side could be from 30 (C60) to 60 (C120) minutes long. Now, you could record an entire music album on just one side or even create your own mix-tape. By the mid-1980s music cassette sales outnumbered those of vinyl records.

Portable CD player and disc by TWCMS : 1999.1336, TWCMS : 2001.3218, and PanasonicDiscovery Museum

Compact disc (CD) players
Philips and Sony were first developing Compact Disc technology in the late 1970s. In 1982 they worked together to produce the first Compact Disc player. As the price of CD players came down, the popularity of CDs grew; they were durable, cheap, of high quality and now it was possible to skip or preselect tracks.

Initially popular with classical music fans, the introduction of the portable CD Walkman in 1984 ensured that the CD format increased appeal to the larger popular music markets. In 1985, Dire Straits’ album, ‘Brothers in Arms’ was the first to sell over a million copies on CD. By 2007, over 200 billion compact discs had been bought and sold globally.

ipod nano. (2008) by TWCMS : 2009.1446 and AppleDiscovery Museum

Digital technology
Since the1990s, the invention of the internet and the development of personal technology has completely changed the way most of us listen to music.

Karlheinz Brandenburg developed the digital file format, MP3, in the 1980s, with MP3 players being developed for the commercial market in the late 1990s. With far greater capacities than either cassettes or CDs, people could now carry hundreds of tracks around with them and listen to them on the go.

As digital music downloads grew in popularity, people no longer had to buy whole albums and could just purchase the songs they liked. And the ‘mix tape’ was back, renamed the ‘playlist’.

Today, digital streaming services provide the potential to listen to any track at any time and in any place. Musical connectivity is everywhere - through blue-tooth speakers in your home, your smart phone or your car's infotainment system. Music is everywhere!

Credits: Story

A History of Music Technology in the Home is part of Making Waves: A Festival of Sound, which runs from 20 September 2021 to 27 March 2022.

You can find out more about Making Waves by going to https://discoverymuseum.org.uk/whats-on/making-waves-a-festival-of-sound

You can find out more about the Unlocking our Sound Heritage Project by going to https://www.bl.uk/projects/tyne-and-wear-archives-and-museums-unlocking-our-sound-heritage

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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