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Audio Timeline: the first 100 years


  • 1850's – Leon de Martinville invents the PHONAUTOGRAPH, which reproduces sound waves as a line etched on a cylinder.
  • 1855 – Charles Sumner Tainter and Chichester Bell produce the GRAPHOPONE, which uses wax cylinders.
  • 1877 – Thomas Alva Edison, whilst designing a telephone repeater, which transcribes Morse into marks on waxed paper, connects the stylus to a telephone handset and is rewarded by hearing his own voice saying "Hello". On 7th December 1877, he demonstrates his PHONOGRAPH machine for the first time.
  • 1887 – Emile Berliner patents the GRAMOPHONE, which uses a flat disc (gramophone record). The disc is made from slate grindings held together by a lacquer. Within 20 years, this can be duplicated from a master disc by a press.
  • By 1912 – machines are available that can play up to 12 records with only one winding
  • 1920's – The increasing popularity of radio leads to improved designs of microphones and loudspeakers.
  • 1927 – Austrian engineer Fritz Pfleumer invents the first magnetic tape, patented in the following year.
  • 1928 – The first "all-electric" RECORD PLAYER is marketed and disc auto-changers for up to ten records follow shortly. Fitting an electric pickup and a radio into the same cabinet produces the RADIOGRAM.
  • 1931-1935 – Alan D Blumlein of EMI takes out patents on binaural or stereophonic recording.
  • 1932 – Pfleumer grants German electronics company AEG the right to use his magnetic tape in developing new sound recording machines.
  • 1935 – AEG demonstrate their pioneering Magnetophon K1 reel-to-reel tape recorder at the Berlin Radio Show.
  • 1947 – EMI release BTR1, the first tape recorder available commercially in the UK.
  • 1948 – Columbia introduces the 33 1/3 RPM long-playing record.
  • 1949 – RCA brings out the 45 RPM extended-play record.

Round-Sykes Microphone, 1923In 1877, Thomas Alva Edison demonstrated his phonograph, a machine capable of both recording and reproducing sound. His first demonstrations used tinfoil wrapped round a metal cylinder - but this was too crude to be practical and he soon replaced it with a far more versatile and durable hollow wax cylinder.

The phonograph dominated the market for the next 20 years but during this period the gramophone became established as a far superior and more sophisticated instrument, and the gramophone record - a flat, black disc composed of shellac and finely pulverised slate (a great improvement on its predecessor!), easily overtook the wax cylinder. The disc was rotated on the gramophone's turntable at 78 rpm - until the clockwork ran down!

Portable models appeared on the scene in the 'early days'. The Museum owns a Decca portable, marketed in 1915 as "a veritable asset to the morale of the Troops".

By the late 1920s, horn gramophones had pride of place in many homes. The horn was not essential; in a lot of cases - particularly with portables like the 1932 Cliftophone - you simply opened a panel at the front to increase the volume!

Decades later, in the 'swinging 60s', radio and television programmes like Top of the Pops and Juke Box Jury influenced the market and heralded in the golden age of vinyl. Shellac had been replaced by vinyl, and small, inexpensive recordings of the latest pop artists swept the market, making it possible for young people to listen to their favourite groups and bands on the inexpensive record players available at the time.


In the 1920s, the development and popularity of domestic radio led to the need for high quality microphones and loudspeakers.

The Museum's microphone collection includes models built into existing cases like mantle clocks, car sidelights and candlestick telephones - but is dominated by the massive 12kg Round-Sykes 'Magnetophone' - the first purpose-built microphone to be commissioned by the BBC and used from 1923 until 1927:- A coil of wire was attached to the magnet by cotton-wool smeared in Vaseline! This frequently fell off in the warm studio, thereby causing "a technical hitch ..." The huge microphone was mounted on a wooden trolley and could be trundled around the studio.

Loudspeakers of the period took on a myriad of shapes and styles - from the conventional horn to fretwork designs of birds, tapestry and pleated paper - each one, an art form to be displayed and cherished with pride.


Half a century ago, reel-to-reel tape recorders were the latest "must haves" followed by CDs, DVDs and culminating in the ground-breaking technological developments of the 21st century.

The road from Edison's tin-foil cylinder to today's achievements is an astonishing path of inventions and innovations, signposting an exciting, unprecedented future.

Round-Sykes microphone and stand
Round-Sykes microphone and stand
Microphone display
Microphone display
Magnavox model R2B loudspeaker (1922) and Graham 'Standard Dragon' petal-shaped, oak loudspeaker (1923)
Magnavox model R2B loudspeaker (1922) and Graham 'Standard Dragon' petal-shaped, oak loudspeaker (1923)
Sterling ‘Primax’ pleated paper loudspeaker, 1924
Sterling ‘Primax’ pleated paper loudspeaker, 1924
Gecophone ‘stork’ loudspeaker, 1929
Gecophone ‘stork’ loudspeaker, 1929
Graphophone and cylinders, c.1895
Graphophone and cylinders, c.1895
Graphophone, c.1905
Graphophone, c.1905
Klingsor gramophone, 1911
Klingsor gramophone, 1911
Decca portable, 1915
Decca portable, 1915
Cliftophone portable, 1932
Cliftophone portable, 1932
HMV radiogram, c.1946
HMV radiogram, c.1946