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Overview of the evolution of sound recording

© 2018 Museum of Magnetic Sound Recording

The Museum, which is privately owned, is working to create an Austin Music and Recording Technology Museum. We appreciate your support!

Through displaying and demonstrating the wide variety of recording devices, the Museum provides insight into the development of sound recording, the innovators who brought us the evolution of sound technology and the engineers who created new and exciting sound recording techniques.

Our library of information which contains relevant magazines, catalogs, manuals and ads is available for research.

Early reproduction

Some of the earliest reproduction devices were music boxes. A music box or musical box is an automatic musical instrument that produces sounds by the use of a set of pins placed on a revolving cylinder or disc so as to pluck the tuned teeth (or lamellae) of a steel comb. They were developed from musical snuff boxes of the 18th century and called carillons à musique. Some of the more complex boxes also contain a tiny drum and/or bells in addition to the metal comb.

9th century: In Baghdad, Iraq, the Banū Mūsā brothers, a trio of Persian inventors, produced "the earliest known mechanical musical instrument", in this case a hydropowered organ which played interchangeable cylinders automatically, which they described in their Book of Ingenious Devices. According to Charles B. Fowler, this "cylinder with raised pins on the surface remained the basic device to produce and reproduce music mechanically until the second half of the nineteenth century."


In our research, we found that the first recorded sound on a mechanical device was the phonautograph developed in Paris in 1857 by Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville. There was no ability to play back the recordings which used a wavy stylus scratching lines on fragile paper blackened by oil lamp soot. These were only played when digitally recreated in 2008. More information and recordings


In 1863, the Frenchman Fourneaux invented the player piano. He called it, "Pianista", the first pneumatic piano mechanism, which was introduced at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition in 1876. In 1887, a year after Votey invented the Pianola; Edwin Welte introduced the perforated paper roll in Germany.The player piano arrived in 1876 and could considered one of the earliest forms of music playback.

Phonograph 1877Replica of Edison's tinfoil cylinder reproducer

The phonograph was invented in 1877 by Thomas Edison. While other inventors had produced devices that could record sounds, Edison's phonograph was the first to be able to reproduce the recorded sound. His phonograph originally recorded sound onto a tinfoil sheet wrapped around a rotating cylinder.

Cylinder 1888 - 1905

Edison stopped cylinder production in 1912 

We want to note here that there is a difference between cylinder recording and magnetic recording. They both have the same goal of reflecting the final sound.

With cylinders and records the sound waves vibrate and that in turn translates into a physical etching on the wax cylinder or on the lacquer record. The sound is amplified through the cone attached to the player. Whereas magnetic recording takes the vibrations of sound through a microphone and converts them into electrical pulses that are then imprinted on the magnetic particles on tape or wire. Playback occurs through electronically amplified equipment.

The Edison cylinder phonograph came into being in 1877. To give some perspective on the timing of all this, Bell Telephone was founded that year and Crazy Horse and his warriors fought their last battle with the United States Cavalry in Montana.

Cylinder materials used to capture the sound vibrations with a stylus included tin foil, lead or wax. Wax became the easiest to mass produce.


The disk based gramophone, or record as we know it, was patented by Emile Berliner in 1887. The record had slightly greater fidelity and were easier to duplicate with a 1978 db magazine cover molding process.  Incidentally Berliner also created one of the first microphones in 1876.  His goal in developing recording was so that folks could record their last thoughts as they lay on their deathbeds.  Interestingly the first gramophone quality was so bad that lyrics were include with the record so folks could understand the content.

Everything dealing with recording audio and music prior to 1946 were record players, record cutters and prior to them the cylinder cutters and players. Interestingly, cylinders were not produced after 1929. The advent of the microphone and electrical recordings greatly improved the quality of the recording process on disc records. By 1925, all the major record companies had moved to recording using electrical microphones. Electric powered phonographs were introduced in 1930, but crystal pick-ups and electronic reproduction did not arrive until the late 1930’s.

In the 1930’s the Brush Development Company, who later came out with one of the first commercially available reel to reel tape recorders, was initially making crystals for phonographs. You will find this is true of many of the companies including Ampex and others who were manufacturers of a variety of things from speakers to electric motors and other recording equipment before they evolved to the tape recorder.

To move from mechanical cylinder and record recording, the next significant step involved Americans Lee De Forest and Edwin Armstrong. Forest came up with the vacuum tube which could amplify weak signals, and Armstrong whose circuit development made recording amplification possible. These developments occurred in the early to mid 1920’s. The telephone benefited mostly from their work by amplifying signals enabling them to travel longer distances.

Vinyl Record Making: "The Sound And The Story" 1956 RCA 24min


James Cartwright's Immortal Performances,Inc.'s collection of acoustical devices - video by the Museum of Magnetic Sound Recording

Thomas Edison's birthday (168th) by recording a group of Austin musicians on a cylinder recorder - videotaped for MOMSR by PPI


Magnetic Sound Recording view 1959 article on The Development and Theory of Magnetic Tape Recording

Valdemar Poulson was the first person credited with demonstrating the first model of a magnetic tape recorder. Paulson’s work was more based on trying to provide a means of allowing people to leave messages when they were making telephone calls. Even though the magnetic recording principles were described previously by Oberlin Smith in 1878 it was not until 1898 that the actual device was demonstrated. In 1888 Smith, decided not to pursue his idea and released it to the public by publishing his ideas about magnetic recording in the journal Electrical World.

Musicians will be interested to know that neither Smith, Poulson nor Edison saw the magnetic recording field as something for entertainment. It was described as a means to document information and for the workplace to provide dictation resources.

So even after those early recording discoveries, the recording industry continued to be based on cylinders and records. This went on for a considerable amount of time.


In 1924 Germany Dr. Kurt Stille developed a dictating machine using wire, however it was not of broadcast quality.

In 1931, using Stille’s invention, Louis Blattner, a German in England, developed the Blattnerphone. For time perspective Abbey Road Studios and the Empire State building also opened that year.

In Christmas Day in 1932 the BBC first used a steel tape recorder for their broadcasts. The recorder was a Marconi –Stille recorder, a huge machine using steel razor tape 3mm wide running at 90 meters per minute or 300 feet per minute. This meant the length of tape required for a half hour program was 1.8 miles long and weighed 55lbs. In some of the early wire recording stories it’s noted that some of the wire recorders were running at such a high speed and using such a large core of metal that it could often, when there was a break or problem with a machine, that you could end up severing a finger, losing a hand, or worse.

So folks now had wire recorders which could record and play back sound. It should be noted that wire recording was of inferior quality to records and created problems in tangled wire and difficult splicing. Solder was used to splice broken wire and would pop as the splice passed by the heads.

So now more about magnetic recording.

Musicians and recording folks may be interested to learn that the first magnetic recording tape evolved from old cigarette paper. An Austrian named Fritz Pfleumer had developed a process for putting metal stripes on cigarette papers to prevent the staining of smokers’ lips by the cigarette papers of the time. Being aware of and interested in Poulson’s recording discoveries, Pfeumer reasoned he could similarly coat his papers with a magnetic strip to be used as an alternative to wire recording. He used a very thin paper coated with iron oxide, used lacquer as glue and received a patent from Germany in 1928. In 1932 he granted the right to use the invention to AEG who then built the first practical tape recorder named the Magnetaphon.

Magnetic recording tape, being the essential part of reel to reel tape recorders, had its industrial beginning around 1932 when AEG and BASF combined their resources to develop magnetic recording tape.

In the mid 1930’s Germany’s AEG was working on magnetic tape and the Magnetephon was first being tested. In 1935 Bell Telephone was working with steel tape machines and they were the first to present stereo recording on steel wire at the World’s Fair in 1939.

Marvin Camras (1916–1995) was an electrical engineer and inventor who was widely influential in the field of magnetic recording. Camras built his first recording device, a wire recorder, in the 1930s for a cousin who was an aspiring singer. Shortly afterwards he discovered that using magnetic tape made the process of splicing and storing recordings easier. Camras's work attracted the notice of his professors at what is now Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) and was offered a position at Armour Research Foundation (which merged with Lewis Institute in 1940 to become IIT) to develop his work.

Before and during World War II Camras' early wire recorders were used by the armed forces to train pilots. They were also used for disinformation purposes: battle sounds were recorded and amplified and the recordings placed where the D-Day invasion was not going to take place. This work was kept secret until after the war. In June 1944 he was awarded U.S. Patent 2,351,004,[1] titled "Method and Means of Magnetic Recording". In all, Camras received more than 500 patents, largely in the field of electronic communications. Camras received a bachelor's degree in 1940 and a master's degree in 1942, both in electrical engineering, from IIT. In 1968, the institution awarded him an honorary doctorate.

In May 1962 Camras wrote a predictive paper titled "Magnetic recording and reproduction - 2012 A.D." In his paper Camras predicted the existence of mass-produced portable media players he described as memory packs the size of a package of playing cards holding up to 1020 bits of information. Such devices would not have any mechanically moving parts and would store both sound and movies. He also predicted music and movie downloads, online shopping, access to online encyclopedias and newspapers and the widespread use of online banking transactions.

In recognition of his achievements, he received the National Medal of Technology award in 1990. Marvin Camras died of kidney failure at the age of 79 in Evanston, Illinois.


The first demonstration of the reel to reel tape recorder, the Magnetaphon K1 took place in Berlin in 1935 running at 30 inches per second and made a hit because it used plastic tape instead of steel. The basic functions of this machine are the basis for the evolving reel to reel tape recorders.

Interestingly, the original Soundmirror by Brush was actually a wire recorder that was developed around 1937. In an article in a tape recording magazine from 1958, it is stated that from the time of the collapse of the American Telegraphone Company in 1918 until 1937 when the Brush Soundmirror wire recorder was placed on the market, no magnetic recording equipment was made in the United States.

The early Soundmirror had a recording time of only one minute on an endless tape. Brush also brought out paper tape with which the Bell Telephone labs. were experimenting, but was not placed on the market.

Brush Development also received a Navel Research and Development contract for a machine that would use tape instead of wire. The US military during WW2 extensively used wire recorders and wire recorders were still in a lot of the catalogs that we have in our resources into the early 50’s.

In 1943 Webcor was building wire recorders for the Navy.

In 1944 3M (Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing) started experimenting with tape.

Birth of the German Magnetophon Tape Recorder 1928 to 1945

the Museum of Magnetic Sound Recording cover of 1982 db magazine showing old German tape recorders   Page 1 of 1982 db magazine article on German reel to reel tape recorders from 1928 to 1945  Page 2 of 1982 db magazine article on German reel to reel tape recorders from 1928 to 1945  Page 13 of 1982 db magazine article on German reel to reel tape recorders from 1928 to 1945  Page 4 of 1982 db magazine article on German reel to reel tape recorders from 1928 to 1945  Page 5 of 1982 db magazine article on German reel to reel tape recorders from 1928 to 1945  Page 6 of 1982 db magazine article on German reel to reel tape recorders from 1928 to 1945

The video below from the History Channel, has a segment beginning at 7:52 about the development of the Magnetophon

Peter Hammer, Audio Historian, provides perspective and details regarding the evolution of magnetic tape.

WW II & John Mullen

During World War II, the Allies kept hearing these live concerts over German radio and initially thought the Third Reich was keeping large orchestras playing live night and day. It was later learned that it was the Magnetephon and its ability to play back realistic recordings for periods longer than possible using lacquer records.

It is those Magnetaphon recorders that John Mullin brought back from Germany after WWII and subsequently introduced to Bing Crosby that resulted in Crosby’s backing Ampex with $50,000 of his own money. The attraction to tape recorders was the ability to edit without the significant loss of quality. Prior to tape, as was the case with Bing Crosby, sound information was cut directly from the performance to the record. So, if a mistake was made, the record was useless. To edit the content had to be transferred from record to record. This, of courses, caused a loss of sound quality each time it was done. Magnetic tape itself evolved in part because engineers desired to have the ability to edit recordings.

A couple of other notes. There was a very limited amount of recording tape for Mullin to bring back from Germany. So, in his early work for Crosby, Mullin would have to erase previously recorded programs and keep recycling the tape.

German engineers had also developed AC biasing during WWII. We’re not going into bias detail here except to say it greatly increased the signal quality in magnetic tape recording. Akai, Roberts and other manufacturers noted this with the marketing of their Cross Field heads.

In 1946 the Shure Microphone Company began developing methods of mass producing heads for tape recorders. Later Nortronics was a significant supplier of tape recorder heads.

The reels for tape recorders evolved from movie reels. They were 7 inches wide and held 1/4 inch media.

In our catalog collection, the first wire recorder we found for commercial sale was in 1946. This was for the Utah 60 Magic Wire Recorder and Playback and it ran $350.

Magnecord's professional wire recorder - the SD-a for "Super Duper" in the Museum of Magnetic Sound RecordingThe company Magnacord was incorporated in 1946 and produced the only professional wire recorder ever made. They called it the SD-1, standing for super duper. They also made the little device called the Audiad, which was a point of sale machine and had a very simple tape drive of about 6 inches per second.

In 1947 Brush was running their National ads for the SoundMirror in publications, including the Saturday Evening Post.



Multi-Track recording history


Great publications      Please note none of these items are for sale on our site!

From Downbeat to Vinyl: Bill Putnam's Legacy to the Recording Industry - Bob Bushnell & Jerry Ferree

Top Record Producers Tell How They Craft the Hits

History of Clockwork-Driven Tape Recorders. The book is written  in English and German languages


NEW Listing! recommended by Phil Van Praag - Federwerk-Tonbandgeräte - History of Clockwork-Driven Tape Recorders. The book is written  in English and German languages - available from German book dealers.

Magnetic Recording - The Ups and Downs of a Pioneer

Magnetic Recording - The Ups and Downs of a Pioneer

The Great British Recording Studios by Howard Massey

The Great British Recording Studios by Howard Massey

Paul Simon book

Paul Simon: The Life
Robert Hilburn

Geoff Emerick
Here, There and Everywhere


Clive Davis - The Soundtrack of My Life


360 Sound - The History of Columbia Records


Abbey Road

 Tascam book


Tascam - 30 Years of Recording Evolution


Magnetic recording


Studio Stories


Sound Recording


History of the Eagles


Standing in the Shadows of MOTOWN


Stax Records


Produced by George Martin


The House That Ahmet Built


Tom Dowd & the Language of Music


Sound City


Les Paul - Chasing Sound



If These Halls Could Talk

Made in Japan book and Sony & Akio Morita


Made In Japan



Perfecting Sound Forever


Off the Record


Temples of Sound


House of Hits


Too Hot to Handle


Chasing Sound

Story of Nipper -  Click on the images below for a larger image

 RCA Nipper final painting of Nipper and the phonograph final painting of Nipper and the phonograph part 1picture the story of Nipper and the phonograph part 1    Nipper and Page 3 of the story about the painting

Limited edition RCA Nipper from Harrod's, London

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