This brief historic time-line illustrates major events in the recorded sound industry, from the birth of the recorded sound in 1857, to the merger of the two recording industry giants Columbia and Victor Records in 2004 under their parent companies Sony and Bertelsmann Music Group while TowerRecords files for bankruptcy.
First Recorded Sound
Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville invents the phonautograph, a device that traces, but cannot play back sound waves. The intent is to visually represent sound onto soot-covered paper. Not reproducible by analog means, these "phonautograms" would be successfully played back in 2008 via digital imaging, dating the first true sound recordings to 1857.
Invention of the Phonograph
Thomas Edison's work on a telephone transmitter and the keyboard telephone inspires him to make sketches for device that will both record and play back sound impulses engraved onto tinfoil. Some months later, John Kruesi, an Edison-employed machinist builds the first tinfoil phonograph, based on Edison's sketches. A verse of "Mary had a little lamb" is reportedly the first phonograph recording to be made and played back. In early 1878, Edison sells his manufacturing and sales rights to the Edison Speaking Phonograph company and turns his attention to the electric light bulb.
Development of the Wax Cylinder
After six years of experimenting with a variety of recording technologies, scientists at the Volta Laboratory are granted patents for improved sound recording. They call their device the ‘graphophone’, and establish the Volta Graphophone Co. for development and the American Graphophone Co. for manufacturing and sales.
Responding to the Volta developments, Edison returns his attention to phonograph research in late 1886. In 1887 Edison’s “Improved Phonograph” adopts the wax-cutting process of the graphophone, but substitutes a solid wax cylinder for the wax coated cardboard graphophone cylinder.
Development of the Flat Disc Recording
German inventor Emile Berliner is granted a U.S. patent for the gramophone, a machine to record sound by tracing a lateral—as opposed to the phonograph's vertical—groove of even depth, onto a cylindrical drum. Shortly thereafter, a disc replaced the cylinder.
Birth of North American Phonograph Company
The phonograph and graphophone are joined under the North American Phonograph Company in a failed attempt to market the machines for dictation. The local subsidiary companies shift from dictation to entertainment through the use of automatic coin-slot machines and parlors. After North American’s collapse in 1894, the Columbia Phonograph Company (the mid-Atlantic subsidiary of North American) merges with American Graphophone and becomes Edison’s major competitor.
Flat Disc Record Appears—The First Format War Begins
Publication of the first list of Berliner Gramophone records for sale begins the first recorded sound format battle. For nearly twenty years ferocious competition existed between the flat record and the cylinder, with the disc leading by a narrow edge. Some companies such as Edison and Columbia issue recordings on both formats.
Phonograph as Consumer Good
Edison and Columbia begin offering spring-motor phonographs at affordable prices, allowing the phonograph to become a household object, and sound recordings a consumer good.
Victor is Born
The Victor Talking Machine Company is incorporated by Eldridge R. Johnson following the complex demise of the Berliner Gramophone Company. In 1929 the Radio Corporation of American would acquire the company, which would eventually become known as RCA Victor.
Mass Production of Recordings
Edison and Columbia market molded cylinders—mass-produced recordings from a master mold. Prior to this, commercial cylinders were copied via pantograph, or dubbing. In 1903, record companies added a “mother” to the duplication process, greatly increasing the number of discs that could be made from a single master.
Enrico Caruso's first American recordings are released by Victor. Among them, "Vesti la giubba" from Pagliacci is emblematic of Caruso's arrival as the first superstar of the recording industry.
First Jazz Recording
The first jazz record is made for the Victor Talking Machine Company by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band. Released in May of that year, the two titles "Livery Stable Blues" and "Dixie Jass Band One Step" would begin a torrent of recordings in this new style.
The Coming of Electrical (Wide-Range) Recording
The first commercially released electrical recording appears on the market: the burial service of a British Unknown Warrior.
The Coming of Electrical (Wide-Range) Recording
Electrical recording is successfully implemented and introduced by both Columbia and Victor Records. Recordings now encompass a much wider tonal range.
The Victor Talking Machine Company introduces the Orthophonic Victrola, a phonograph incorporating a large exponential playback horn, capable of reproducing this wider sonic range. In the face of this technological advance accoustical recordings would quickly become obsolete.
Recording Radio Broadcasts
Recorded transcriptions for radio programs are introduced as a result of the rise of syndicated programs.
Stereophonic Sound Recording is Invented
A patent is awarded to W. Bartlett Jones for a means to record stereophonically, utilizing one stylus and producing one groove with right and left channels on either groove wall. It would be twenty-five years before stereo recordings are sold commercially.
Recording Radio Broadcasts
Introduction of the lacquer-coated blank disc makes instantaneous recording practical for broadcast and home recording use.
Dawn of Magnetic Tape Recording
The Magnetophon, a pioneering tape recorder, is introduced at the Berlin State Fair. By 1938 tape recording technology improved sufficiently to meet basic broadcast standards.
The Walt Disney animated feature "Fantasia" presents first commercial appearance of a four-track recording derived from eight recording channels. This produced something akin to "surround sound."
Instant, Portable Sound Recording
Wire recorders come to the fore as the culmination of advances in magnetic recording. Great advances in wire recording would occur before the end of the decade, only to be abandoned with the introduction of magnetic tape recorders.
The Switch to Magnetic Tape
Ampex Corporation introduces high-quality tape recorders and recording tape, and effectively revolutionizes the recording and broadcast industries. Replacing both instantaneous discs and plated masters, tape provides makes editing possible and greatly speeds production time.
The New Speed Revolution and Another Format War
Columbia records introduces the Long Play unbreakable record. This twelve-inch, 33 1/3 rpm disc would become the industry standard until the introduction of the compact disc in the 1983. RCA Victor would answer the challenge the following year with the introduction of the 45 rpm disc and record changer. A consumer in 1949 was faced with the choice between three formats: 78 rpm disc, 33 1/3 rpm disc, and the 45 rpm disc.
The first commercial stereo long play recordings are issued on the Audio Fidelity label.
Tape Recording Miniaturized and Quieted
Philips introduces the cassette tape which was intended to replace open reel tapes. The advent of cassettes and cassette players provided a medium for the 1966 introduction of the various Dolby systems of reducing noise and hiss.
The Fab Four on American Vinyl
"Introducing the Beatles," on Vee-Jay Records, and "Meet the Beatles" on Capitol hit the American market.
Sony introduces the Walkman, a palm-sized stereo cassette tape player, making it easy for listeners to be walk about-this-program, travel, and exercise while listening through lightweight headphones.
CDs and Digital Audio and Another Format War
The compact disc and the compact disc player are marketed by both Philips and Sony corporations. Stereo LPs will eventually lose out to this new, convenient format that is both sonically and visually appealing.
A U.S. Patent is issued to for the MP3, a high-quality, low bit-rate audio format that has become the most commonly used audio medium.
iTunes is developed and introduced by Apple Inc. in 2000. Both a media player and library, iTunes allows users to purchase downloads of music, organize, and store the files in numerous ways. In October of 2001 Apple introduces the iPod, a portable player designed to store recorded selections downloaded from the "iTunes Digital Jukebox," which appeared in January of that year.
Sony Music Entertainment and Bertelsmann Music Group merge, bringing together under one corporate umbrella, after a century of rivalry, Columbia and Victor Records.
Retail giant Tower Records files for bankruptcy and liquidation, bringing a significant, seemingly long-term change to the marketing of sound recordings.
The following websites also provide historical narratives and timelines charting the discovery and progression of recorded sound technologies: