Telephones to symphonies

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We take for granted our ability to bring an entire symphony orchestra into our living room. We’re not arguing over whether we can or cannot invite the CSO over to give us their rendition of Beethoven’s 9th, instead, today’s debates are more about how close we can get to the real thing.

144 years ago, when inventor Alexander Graham Bell first came up with the idea of the microphone—the device that makes this all possible—I don’t imagine he envisioned where it would lead us. Bell, of the telephone fame, had, on March 10, 1876, successfully tested his first water transmitter, the precursor to everything we do and hear today in stereo.

A water transmitter? Well, more accurately, a water microphone. In this crazy contraption, sound waves cause a diaphragm to vibrate a needle up and down in water that has been made conductive by a small amount of acid. As the needle vibrates up and down in the water, the resistance of the water fluctuates causing alternating current in the circuit, and we get an electrical equivalent of sound. Remarkable.

It wasn’t until 10 years later that Edison build a better microphone using granulated carbon as the electrical generation element, but his efforts were only marginally better than Bell’s. It wasn’t until 1931—55 years later—that we’d get a microphone that resembles what we think of as high fidelity sound today. In that year, two concurrent discoveries changed everything. First, E.C. Wente and A. C. Thuras of Bell Laboratories introduced the dynamic microphone with a magnitude lower noise and higher fidelity, followed in that same year by RCA’s introduction of the ribbon microphone, one of the most widely used tools for the vocal recording and broadcasting industries. It was (and still is) considered by many as the most natural-sounding microphone ever made.

Today, the most widely used microphones for high-fidelity recordings is the condenser microphone, which, surprisingly enough, was also invented by E.C. Wente back in 1916. It wouldn’t be taken seriously until years later when amplifier technology had improved enough to make it work as well as it does today.

It is endlessly fascinating to me how everything we take for granted has such a rich background that the inventors likely never dreamed of. Certainly, Alexander Graham Bell probably never imagined his water microphone reproducing a symphony orchestra at the level we achieve today.

To him, it would likely seem like magic.