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The wonders of audio amplification and sound recording are often overlooked when one is not aware of the history of microphones. Without microphones, music and all applications for sound recording and amplification would not be possible.
Let’s gain a newfound appreciation for these recording devices by reading through this brief history of microphones.
The formal invention of the first microphone is a grey area for some as two inventors and an independent individual are involved.
To break it down simply, Emile Berliner first started working on the microphone alongside Thomas Edison. With the help of Edison’s notes taken from observing and studying the liquid transmitter of Alexander Graham Bell, the first carbon microphone was created. Sounds simple enough to claim that it was Emile Berliner and Thomas Edison who both invented the first microphone.
However, lines started to cross when Alexander Graham Bell bought Berliner’s microphone patent. Later on, Alexander Graham Bell would also sell Emile Berliner’s patent to Thomas Edison for an amount of $50,000. This led to a chain of disputes and hearings where in the end the Supreme Court ruled that Thomas Edison was the legal inventor of the first microphone otherwise known as the carbon microphone.
Independently, another individual would be working on the carbon microphone as well. Said individual was David E. Hughes who would create the same type of carbon microphone as Emile Berliner and Thomas Edison’s.
While the term “microphone” was first coined back in 1827 by Sir Charles Wheatstone, the formal invention of the first microphone would not be for another 49 years.
It was in 1876 when Berliner and Edison invented the first microphone also known as the carbon microphone. In the same year, David E. Hughes would also create a microphone of the same type. Thus, the birth of carbon microphones and the formal microphone design as we know it.
While one might think that the early history and timeline of microphones started with their formal invention in 1876, such is not the case. Plenty of inventors and scientists have contributed to the evolution and timeline of microphones before Edison and Berliner took a crack at it.
English physicist Sir Charles Wheatstone coined the term “microphone” back in 1827 after designing the first viable telegraph system in conjunction with William Cooke. Through this invention, the concept of having devices that could amplify sound while transmitting it to another location came to be. This invention was pivotal to the development of microphone technology as the telegraph allowed scientists and inventors to discover that sound could be transmitted through waves within a medium.
A few years later, Johann Philipp Reis used this discovery and applied it to his invention of the Reis Telephone in 1861. Said invention introduced the transducer — an important element that microphone manufacturers to this day use for their microphone technology and microphone design.
With the Reis Telephone, a transducer was created that can convert mechanical wave energy (sound waves) into electrical energy (audio signal). This was made possible due to its design wherein the brass strips connected to the center of the diaphragm and one mounted above it would cause sound vibrations to send an electrical signal.
While inventing the telephone, Alexander Graham Bell also developed the Liquid Transmitter or Water Microphone. While it does bear the name “microphone”, the Liquid Transmitter is just a few years (and designs) short from becoming the first formal microphone invented. The Liquid Transmitter may have taken some learnings from the Reis Telephone and past inventions but the change in microphone design made all the difference in terms of audio quality.
By using a metal cup filled with water that has small amounts of sulphuric acid, Alexander Graham Bell was able to create an electrically conductive liquid. He then added a diaphragm that was stretched into a small horn and attached it to a needle. Putting this together, when the needle vibrates due to sound waves, the water resistance fluctuates. Thus, the Liquid Transmitter became more effective in reproducing intelligible speech than its predecessors.
Bell’s design of the Liquid Transmitter paved the way for the invention of carbon microphones. This invention was pivotal in showing inventors and scientists that creating an inversely proportional electrical signal to the telephone’s speaker is possible. Thus, inventors such as Edison took notes.
Carbon microphones have a rich history — from having multiple inventors to the creation of other models and types such as the double-button carbon microphone and carbon button microphone. However, let’s zone in on the carbon microphone of Berliner and Edison.
As previously mentioned, this is the first formal microphone invented. What made it different from its predecessors was the microphone design. This was the first mic that made use of two metal plates and separated them with carbon granules. By doing so, a change in electrical resistance took place and this helped turn sound waves into electrical audio signals.
Additionally, this carbon microphone would also be called a “loose-contact transmitter” because it has two electric contacts that are separated by a layer of carbon. When it joins together with the diaphragm, the electric contact vibrates and gets struck by a sound wave. A change in electrical resistance would then occur between pilates causing a steady DC voltage to be applied.
With its advanced design and technology at the time, the carbon microphone was able to produce high-level audio signals compared to all other microphones available. The materials used also made this model more practical while attaining good sound quality that can be used in telephone systems. With that said, the carbon microphone became the formal first microphone in history.
With the formal invention of the mic, its development and evolution do not stop there. More microphone types came about and the microphone industry started to flourish. With inventors and engineers coming from Western Electric, Bell Laboratories, Neumann, and more, microphone developments seem to be just beginning.
Shortly following the carbon microphone was the invention of moving-coil microphones. Invented by Ernst Werner Von Siemens, the first moving-coil microphone made use of a diaphragm and attached it with a moving coil within a permanent magnetic field. This allowed a small electrical current to be induced across the parts whenever the diaphragm and coil would move. Simple as it may sound, this prototype of the moving-coil mic did not gain popularity with the public but it did become important for the creation of other microphones.
Western Electric is a company you will hear often when talking about the history of mics. It was from the Western Electric Company where American physicist, Edward Christopher Wente, invented the first condenser microphone in 1916.
Wente’s condenser microphone design used two plates that had space in between them so they could act as capacitors. This allowed the condenser microphone to have a consistent voltage that could give it a fixed charge. By effect, the condenser microphone was the first mic type that had an AC voltage that could be outputted from it. Hence, the condenser mic is also called a capacitor microphone or electrostatic microphone.
Although Wente was the inventor of the condenser, it was Georg Neumann who designed the first commercial condenser microphone. From then and even up to now, there are variations of condenser mics being developed such as electret condenser microphones and RF condenser microphones.
The electret microphone was invented by Bell Laboratories and it changed the industry by introducing an electret condenser microphone that was reliable yet smaller in size and affordable. Sony would later on also come up with their version of the electret microphone. These electret microphones would later pave the way for MEMS microphones and digital microphones.
Fast forward to the latter part of microphone development and history would be the invention of the crystal microphone, ribbon microphone, wireless microphone, digital microphone, dynamic microphone, shotgun microphone, multi-pattern microphones like the omnidirectional microphone and cardioid microphone, and more. All of which you can read up on our detailed breakdown of microphone evolution and developments.
With microphones being versatile, there are plenty of applications for them. With the ability to amplify sound while making one’s voice rich, radio broadcasting is one application that heavily uses microphones. The fusion is deeply embedded, there are even famous microphones used throughout broadcasting history.
However, one application that comes to mind right away is music. Microphones can record sound, detect sound, reject sound pressure, and act as analog devices that can reproduce and capture high-quality sound recordings. Hence, the impact of microphones on music is transformative. With that said, let’s take a look at the history of mics in the music industry.
While one might think that the microphone invented by Berliner, Edison, and independently Hughes will be used for music applications, such is not the case. It was the invention of electrical microphones in the mid-1920s that would bring out the advent of using these devices in music. The development of crystal microphones, condenser microphones, and capacitor microphones would mean that sound recording can now be captured and audio can be amplified.
Furthermore, microphones started to be used as additional “props” and tools to create an emotive performance. Singers like Billie Holiday and Frank Sinatra are known to use microphones to not only highlight their voices but also to use them as props when performing.
The fusion of microphones in music also meant that more singers and artists could perform in various locations. May it be in front of an intimate audience or a large crowd, microphones can put on a show.
New microphone developments such as changing the microphone’s directionality, adjusting the frequency response, and measuring the audio signal also allowed for more versatility and flexibility for musicians, artists, and sound engineers.
As the level of performance and standards of artists would progress, more types of microphones and systems would be used for music, such as ribbon microphones, dynamic microphones, clip-on microphones, and even contact microphones. The use of a wireless microphone system has also greatly transformed the history of music.
The early history and development of microphones truly brought out a variation of microphones today. From the early days of vacuum tubes and crystal microphones to advanced wireless microphones and shotgun microphones, these versatile recording devices continue to evolve.
It’s also interesting to note how one element from a previous invention can be pivotal for the next. A vacuum tube may lead to the invention of a practical moving-coil microphone, and the same vacuum tube can evolve into an interference tube that would be used later on for a shotgun microphone.
All these tell us that as technology continues to progress, industry standards get higher, and more applications arise, microphones will indeed continue to evolve.
When E.C. Wente invented the condenser microphone while working at Western Electric, the application of said mic was mainly for creating better audio transmissions. At the time, people needed a great telephone transmitter and so Wente’s invention and patent resembled such.
The condenser microphone is one of the most used and preferred mic types by many. It can be used for various applications as there are differing types of condenser mics invented. Generally, there are two main types: small-diaphragm and large-diaphragm condenser mics.
However, variants of this mic type can be further differentiated depending on the design. That is why there are multi-directional condenser mics that will allow you to switch between omni, bi-directional, and cardioid responses. There’s also the dual-diaphragm condenser capsule that allows you to have more multi-patterns at a time.
The first ribbon microphone invented was in 1924 by Dr. Walter Schottky and co-invented by Dr. Erwin Gerlach. Interestingly enough, the ribbon microphone invented by the two German scientists was a type of dynamic microphone that works on electromagnetism.
The first commercial microphone that used phantom power was the Schoeps CMT 20 in 1964. Said microphone was pioneered by Neumann and Schoeps and was built to the specifications of French radio using 9-12 volt CD phantom power.