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Program National Recording Preservation Plan


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.

  • 1857

    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.

  • July 1877

    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.

  • 1886

    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.

  • May 1887

    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.

  • 1888

    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.

  • November 1894

    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.

  • 1896

    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.

  • October 1901

    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.

  • 1902

    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.

  • April 1904

    First Superstar

    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.

  • February 1917

    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.

  • 1920

    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.

  • 1925

    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.

  • 1928

    Recording Radio Broadcasts

    Recorded transcriptions for radio programs are introduced as a result of the rise of syndicated programs.

  • 1932

    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.

  • 1934

    Recording Radio Broadcasts

    Introduction of the lacquer-coated blank disc makes instantaneous recording practical for broadcast and home recording use.

  • 1935

    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.

  • 1940

    Multi-track Recording

    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."

  • Early 1940s

    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.

  • 1948

    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.

  • June 1948

    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.

  • November 1957

    Stereo Emerges

    The first commercial stereo long play recordings are issued on the Audio Fidelity label.

  • 1963

    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.

  • January 1964

    The Fab Four on American Vinyl

    "Introducing the Beatles," on Vee-Jay Records, and "Meet the Beatles" on Capitol hit the American market.

  • 1980

    Traveling Music

    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.

  • 1983

    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.

  • 1996

    Digital Encoding

    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.

  • 1999

    Digital Miniatures

    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.

  • August 2004

    Major Transitions

    Sony Music Entertainment and Bertelsmann Music Group merge, bringing together under one corporate umbrella, after a century of rivalry, Columbia and Victor Records.

  • 2006

    Major Transitions

    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:

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