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A brief history of the first microphones and sound recording devices

These days, it's easy enough to pop online to purchase quality sound recording equipment. From basic studio mics for first-time podcasters to high-tech shotguns for features, you can not only record in high definition, but also totally wirelessly. 

However, as contemporary recording microphones are so accessible, it can be easy to forget where these fantastic devices came from. Let's take a look at the history of mics and sound recording devices, and what they used to be like back in ye olden days.

The very first microphone actually used vibrations from a voice to make a needle rattle in water.

The beginnings of the microphone

You could argue that the original microphones came from Alexander Graeme Bell, inventor of the telephone. The very first device of this type actually used vibrations from a voice to make a needle rattle in water. The changing liquid would affect an electrical current, which could be transmitted to a receiver on the other end of a line. Indeed, Bell was able to make a phone call work over existing telegraph lines in his demonstrations! 

Next came Emil Berliner, another famous inventor in the audio recording industry. A German man, Berliner is said to have created the world's first carbon button microphone (1876), a superior audio recording device than Bell's water-based model. This microphone involved applying vibrations from an electroconductive diaphragm to a packet of carbon granules, which could be picked up by an electrical output signal. 

This proved highly successful, leading to Bell purchasing it for his later telephone models (still pre-1900s). 

And then came sound recording

Early sound recording devices had no digital parts, and wouldn't for decades. 

Thomas Edison first theorised the possibility that we could record sound after wondering how to create a more efficient transmitting device than the telegraph. According to Adam Kennedy of Penn State University, in 1877, Edison connected the needle of a telegraph device to the diaphragm of a telephone and spoke into it. As expected, the needle responded to the vibrations of his voice and recorded a pattern on paper. However, this produced no sound when listened back to.

So he devised a second device, made out of a tinfoil cylinder. The needle carved the sound into the tin, creating an imprint of him saying the nursery rhyme 'Mary Had a Little Lamb'. Though low-quality, it worked. Sound recording was born.

The next time you are listening back to a dialogue track on your computer, just think: not too long ago you would have needed a tinfoil cylinder! 

Early sound recording devices used cylinders imprinted by needles.Early sound recording devices used cylinders imprinted by needles.