A Brief History Of the Microphone

Welcome back to the blog! We can finally start our new focus for this month after an extended month last month, and it’s a focus I’m sure many of you will find very interesting; General Microphone Technical Aspects. 

We’ll be exploring everything from what SPL is and why it matters, through to self noise ratings, output and impedance, and our starting point today - where this all even came from in general! There are, I’m sure, many of you who are very much interested in this topic of conversation, but remember I am not a historian or history teacher, so if I get a year wrong or something, feel free to reach out and correct my mistakes (I’m always happy to learn too!)

Let’s dive in!

How did microphones come into existence?

This seems like a simple enough question to answer, but actually there’s a little more detail that should also be explained, otherwise some other factors later on won’t make as much sense. It starts with the invention of the telephone, invented by Alexander Graham Bell in 1876 who only a year later recognized the usefulness of the microphone invented by Emile Berliner and so, bought the patent awarded to Emile for around $50,000 (which in today's word is still a lot of money but in 1877 was an exorbitant amount of money!)

That design wasn't the only one made however; Thomas Eddison and Emile Bierliner engaged in an over decade long court battle, which was finally settled in 1892, and actually awarded to Thomas Eddison in a supreme court, later on declaring that he was the actual inventor of the first microphone. This debate was far from over though, and the shouting match had now been engaged, not just in the U.S., but all throughout Europe now as well.

Emile Berliner is also known for a few other inventions, the main attributed to him is the invention of the Gramophone and the Vinyl Disc design, still in use today for many audiophiles. 

While Eddison and Berliner were engaged in their court case for as long as they were, another man came forward by the name of David Edward Hughes, also claiming to be the inventor of the first microphone as well. So, like every self-respecting gentleman of the 1900’s and distinguished inver there was only one recourse of action - publicly accuse and slander everyone but yourself, with claims of piracy and plagiarism vilifying the rivals you have; of course this was the only answer… 

Long story short, the entire world was now watching this unfold in a way that sounded like todays sitcom TV styled writing, and eventually a distinguished physicist named Lord Kelvin was finally asked to interject, and publicly recognised that both inventors had worked off of yet, another design which hadn’t been mentioned up until this point; however, both Eddison and Berliner had created their designs from other man, a Frenchman called Clerac, which in turn had also been based off of another Frenchman. 

How can we trace the first Microphone to Modern Day? 

So really, the designs seem like they were inevitable, and from the sounds of it, I can’t help but see the irony of designing and building a recording device, but without something to record to, there wasn’t any documented proof other than what someone may have dated and timed (which can also alway be changed resulting in a ‘their word against mine’ sort of tangle). But I think we should take a look at the next developments if we want to be able to trace the lineage of microphones we use today, but what exactly happened to spark the other designs for them as well, as that’s another part of the same question?

The answer is a simple one: The Great War. The amount of technological advancements attributed to the war are astonishing, but there are a few that tread the lines between both WW1 and WW2 just in time to help establish the next boom in technological advancements. The first boom started in 1915 when the development of the Vacuum Tube Amplifier was invented allowing for the increase of output from a microphone, and resulting in further advances in what we now consider to be known as a Preamp. From there, the first condenser microphone was designed and patented in 1916 by E.C. Wente while working at Bell Laboratories, after being tasked with improving the audio quality of the telephone. 

Now, during the 1920’s after the Great War was at an end, the radio had become the main way for almost everyone in Europe and the US to find out the news, as well as being the most desired form of entertainment, and so the demand for microphones and the advancement in their technology had grown exponentially and RCA in response to this demand designs the first Ribbon Microphone for radio broadcasting, followed by Georg Neumann and Co. later designing the first ever commercial microphone in 1928, aptly nicknamed ‘The Bottle’ because of its shape. From here, shortly before the cause of the second boom in technological advancements the world over, World War II, the last main microphone advancement was made in 1931 with Western Electric creating and making available to purchase the 618 Electrodynamic Transmitter - the first Dynamic capsule created for commercialisation. 

One of the many reasons I love the Amethyst is because if the design of it. To me, it's a close representation of the CMV-3 'The Bottle' microphone made in 1928.

Unfortunately, the need for the first preamp, the increase of the need for the telephone, and of course, the radio communications, were all attributed to the Great War where communication and warnings in particular were integral to saving lives. But, without it we wouldn’t have those advancements shape the world we live in today, and I probably wouldn’t be writing this explaining the butterfly effect of one huge event changing the world forever. Without the first world war, microphones probably would exist in the way they do, automotive engineering and aeronautics, advancements in medicine, physics and many more things that make our lives what they are for the better wouldn’t be in existence in the same way they are. I am thankful for that. 

Next week and the weeks after, I’ll be diving into some more of the history of how we know the terms of what to test for such as SPL or impedance ratings and why they also helped shape the microphones we love today, including our own designs and innovation at JZ Microphones! I will happily touch on some of the recording advancements if you’d like me to as well, but reach out and let me know if that’s of interest and if enough interest is there I’ll make sure to document it for you all! Until next time, stay creative.