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PlaybackFrom the Victrola to MP3, 100 Years of Music, Machines and Money
By Mark Coleman
Da Capo PressCopyright © 2005 Mark Coleman
All right reserved.
Chapter OneMAGIC IN A TIN CAN
Before the twentieth century, listening to music was a temporal, fleeting experience-and a rare treat. In America, most often it was heard in church and perhaps at home, if someone had talent, not to mention a piano. Marching bands would strut down Main Street on national holidays; enjoyment was a civic duty. Symphony and opera concerts were the preserve of urban highbrows. Burlesque and wildly popular, the comic songs in vaudeville and minstrel shows thrilled the nineteenth century's popular culture-the lowest common denominator. The invention of recording, the phonograph, brought them home.
Sound reproduction didn't instantly change the nature of music, but the invention of the phonograph and the introduction of phonograph records gradually transformed our basic relationship to music. Technology to a large extent determines what we hear and how we hear it. The compact (three or four minutes) duration of the popular song is the enduring result of technology devised by Thomas Edison and others. Since playback is brief, popular songs must be instantly recognizable. Then as now, faced with the novelty of new technology, listeners crave the comforts of familiar music.
The phonograph domesticated the public spectacle of amusement in the early 1900s. From the beginning, technology turned popular culture into a moneymaking proposition. Penny arcades, or amusement halls, were the first place most people attended the miracle of sound reproduction, via coin-operated machines that presaged the jukebox. By the early twentieth century, the home phonograph was being marketed as an affordable miracle, a poor man's luxury. The existence of leisure time itself was a novelty at this point, a by-product of the Industrial Revolution. The subsequent rise of tech-generated entertainment marks the beginning of the Information Revolution.
Music machines have always led the charge in information technology. For all its technical beauty and smarts, the phonograph conveys something deeper, a magical power; music cuts to the emotions, communicating on a profound human level. Still, a little perspective is in order regarding music and machines. However miraculous it seems, the act of making music is but one application of technology. It's easy to be myopic about this; just as there's more to life than music, there's also more to technology than music. Especially today, in what seems like the too much information age, it's easy to get swept away by hype. Take the computer. With its vast capacity and lightning-quick speed, it's capable of a great deal more than reproducing sound or providing a communication network. In the twenty-first century, music isn't driving technology, it's domesticating innovation, just as it did with another wondrous contrivance, the phonograph, 100 years earlier.
Technology evolves. It regenerates and improves, much as we do. Modern-day inventor Ray Kurzweil builds machines that bridge the gap between technology and music. Kurzweil sets flexible criteria for measuring this progress. His "Life Cycle of a Technology" lists seven stages. Precursor is the pie-in-the-sky phase of daydreams and plans. Invention means the moment of creation-actual birth. Development marks growth and refinement, including some additional creation. Maturity is when a technology appears dominant-and indomitable. Pretenders signal the emergence of a rebel technology, a challenge that is ultimately repressed. Obsolescence is when the successful coup takes place, toppling a sleeping giant. Antiquity is the end of utility-when technology enters retirement.
Technology and music too have merged in Kurzweil's life history, to great effect. As a high school student, he appeared as a contestant on the TV quiz show I've Got a Secret; he played a piece of piano music that was actually composed by computer-one that the young man had built and programmed. In the 1970s, Kurzweil invented a reading device for the blind, print-to-speech via computer. Stevie Wonder bought one of the first Kurzweil Reading Machines, and he consulted with the inventor when Kurzweil turned to making synthesizers in the 1980s. Kurzweil claims his synthesizers emulate the complex sound response of the grand piano: a resonant acoustic sound, not the tinny processed sound of an electronic organ. When it comes to music, technology also presents limitations-or at least they sound like limitations to older ears.
The life cycle of the phonograph closely follows Kurzweil's criteria, with a few novel twists. Record players reached maturity during the hi-fi fifties and stereo sixties. Tape players and prerecorded tapes-remember 8 tracks?-represented the pretenders challenge during the seventies. Obsolescence took hold in the eighties. The popularity of cassettes-prerecorded and blank, for portable players and home taping-consistently chipped away at the dominion of the disc. The compact disc coup caught us by surprise in the early nineties, nearly overnight, or so it seemed.
Most important, the turntable found a new purpose in its twilight years. Antiquity has been postponed: the good old phonograph did not go quietly. Turntables are now widely recognized as a musical instrument, the driving force behind dance music and hip-hop.
This refurbished position stands in stark contrast to the rusty status of the typewriter, for instance. A rough contemporary of the phonograph, the typewriter emerged in the late nineteenth century. Replaced by computerized word processing in the mid 1980s, typewriting became an early casualty of the digital era. The mechanical rain of clanking keys is long gone, replaced by a steady, subliminal tap tap tap. The concept of a keyboard survives, however. Unsurprisingly, it began on the piano.
The invention of the player piano, or pianola-an automated instrument-runs roughly parallel to the phonograph. The player piano essentially played itself. It was powered by suction, pumped by foot pedals, programmed by tiny perforations on interchangeable rolls of paper, and played by felt-tipped wooden fingers pressing the keys. The pianola was patented by Edwin Votey of Detroit in 1902. Votey's first model stood in front of a standard piano; later versions (and competing designs) enclosed the playing mechanism within the piano. The Wurlitzer Company of Cincinnati introduced a coin-operated "nickel-in-the-slot" player piano in 1898, capitalizing on the phenomenon of public amusement. Player pianos remained popular until 1930 or so-right around the time that radio threatened to eclipse phonograph records. Yet the phonograph survived, while the player piano didn't. Why? Singing to the accompaniment of a player piano couldn't compete with listening to sophisticated sound recordings. Still, player pianos filled a niche. According to the historian Russell Sanjek, "eventually 75,000 player pianos and a million music rolls were sold." And the player piano crudely prefigures the sampling keyboards of the 1980s. Feed 'em the right program and a recognizable sequence of sounds will emerge. Thanks to technology, you don't need to be a musician to play a musical instrument.
The history of technology is full of instances of similar inventions being made simultaneously by two or more different groups. -Bob Johnstone, We Were Burning
Inventors rely on patents. Granted by the U.S. government, patents insure ownership and right to profit from an invention. The United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) grants patents for protection of inventions; a patent for an invention is a grant of property rights to inventor. Today, a patent holds for twenty years from date of application. According to the USPTO, a patent guarantees "the right to exclude others from making, using, offering for sale, selling the invention or importing the invention into United States." Patents thus do not protect the right to make, use, sell, or import an invention. Patents extend the right to exclude others from doing so. This distinction is crucial, as is the following caveat. Patents are granted for a demonstrably working machine or process-you can't patent an idea or suggestion, a design or outline.
Patents began in England under the reign of the Tudors. Queen Elizabeth I (1561-1590) awarded monopoly status to key traders and manufacturers, a corrupt system that was scrapped and revamped during the next century. Starting in 1718, "specification," or proof, was required of patented inventions. Wart's 1796 patent for steam engines set an important precedent: patents would be granted for improvements on an already-existing invention. As the Industrial Revolution spread from Europe to America, the competition for patents went through the roof. Anybody, it seemed, could aspire to be an inventor.
The competition in information technology was especially fierce, even at the very beginning, when patents provided potent legal ammunition for battling pesky competitors. The telegraph battle matched American and British scientists. A U.S. patent was granted to Samuel F. B. Morse in 1840. Britain declared the patent invalid, instead recognizing the electric telegraph of locals William Fothergill Cooke and Charles Wheatstone. The telephone, of course, is synonymous with Alexander Graham Bell. He was granted a patent for it in 1876. Bell, however, and competitor Elisha Gray filed on the same day-February 14. Bell got the nod and walked home with (possibly) the most lucrative patent of all time.
Without question, Guglielmo Marconi is considered the father of radio. In 1897, he was granted U.S. patent number 586,193. But he continually faced stiff competition from Edwin Armstrong and Lee De Forest; in the years to come, Marconi's U.S. rivals both won key patents.
Philo T. Farnsworth, though, ought to be known as the father of television. He was granted a patent way back in 1930. Thanks to an industry boycott of Farnsworth's technology, enforced by RCA's David Sarnoff, that early television patent expired in 1947. The ascendance of commercial TV networks quickly followed. Patents still provide legal ammunition in the technology struggles of the twenty-first century. Jeffrey Bezos, CEO of online retailer Amazon.com, was recently granted patent 6,029,141 (along with three other people) for single-click Internet shopping.
When young Thomas Edison applied for his early patents in the 1860s he relied on the services of a patent lawyer. Negotiating the bureaucracy has always been arcane, demanding labor. Obtaining a patent was expensive in those halcyon days: total fees exceeded $35, and you had to submit a working model and detailed blueprint of your brainstorm. Any dispute with another inventor or "infringer" incurred additional fees. Decades later, Edison threatened to work around the whole process by holding his own "trade secrets." By 1888, he could get away with it.
The age of invention and inventors properly begins in nineteenth-century Europe. Michael Faraday and Bernard Ohm laid the groundwork for electricity; Henrich Helmholtz and Jules Antoine Lissajous pioneered the science of acoustics. There were others. Many of these visionaries constructed their inventions as theoretical abstractions-"pure" scientific research. Yes, some of them were wealthy amateurs, glorified dilettantes. Characteristically, American inventors pursued a more pragmatic path. They were interested in applications-business applications. Their inventions tended to work.
Inventors were the technology entrepreneurs of the late 1800s; successfully promoting your invention required equal parts engineering skills, business acumen, and all-American showmanship. The go-go years, those heady days of runaway innovation and warring inventors, roughly extend from 1880 to 1910. The phonograph epitomizes this era, the age of invention. Competition was key. Edison reached his sonic breakthrough by expanding on the experiments of his peers and predecessors. In the wake of Edison's first patent, the phonograph was further refined and improved on by competing inventors.
Unlike many European geniuses, Thomas Edison understood that marketing and manufacturing skills were central to the public success of his products. And he backed up his boastful predictions and publicity with solid workmanship. According to Oliver Read and Walter Welch, the phonograph was a simpler, more efficient invention than the telephone. "From the start, [the phonograph] worked much better." The phonograph merged cutting-edge technology with mass-market salesmanship, paving the way for twentieth-century pop culture.
Just as several inventors (or businessmen) can lay claim to a single invention, more than one format can serve the same technological purpose. Size, form, and shape-the overall style or presentation-determine the format. The dimensions of a book jacket, the length of a television program, the arrangement of data on a computer disc are all defined by format. Within a developing technology, when one format challenges another for dominance, it's a fight to the finish. Heated competition arises, human passions ignite, and commercial pressure fans the flames. Invariably, the fire sets off a format war.
Magic in a Can
There are, of course, many people who will buy a distorted, ill-recorded and scratchy record if the singer has a great reputation, but there are infinitely more who will buy for the beauty of the recording with fine voices, well-instrumented with no scratch. -Thomas Edison, 1915
It wasn't always there. The multimedia monolith we call the entertainment industry began as a simple machine: the phonograph, or record player or turntable. Originally, the phonograph was a crude device with a profound purpose: a rudimentary mechanical rendering of a sophisticated idea. That crackpot dream-reproducing the human voice-inspired too the invention of the telephone and telegraph; but the phonograph quickly became more than a means of communication.
Music made the phonograph a revolutionary medium, the spinning machine that drove pop culture to its current position of dominance. And American popular music, the sonic outpouring of immigrants, vulgar and vernacular, provided the phonograph power to change the world.
The success and evolution of the phonograph wasn't the result of one man's singular genius or vision. And it was hardly a group effort. The phonograph was the product of intense competition between many individuals: inventors and investors, fakes and flukes, hucksters, hopefuls and hacks, scientists and artists and businessmen. Even the wizard himself, Thomas Edison, didn't anticipate or appreciate the full impact and influence of his invention.
Excerpted from Playback by Mark Coleman Copyright © 2005 by Mark Coleman. Excerpted by permission.
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