Hacker News new | past | comments | ask | show | jobs | submit login
At The Dawn Of Recorded Sound, No One Cared (npr.org)
131 points by collapse on May 23, 2017 | hide | past | web | favorite | 89 comments

> He beat the more well-known inventor Thomas Edison by 20 years,

de Martinville was forgotten because his device had no use, could not play back sound, he did nothing to improve it and he had little idea what to do with it.

> There is no evidence that shows Edison knew about Scott's breakthrough when he stumbled onto sound recording.

He did not "stumble" into it. Edison had a flash of inspiration and then designed a machine to implement it.

>de Martinville was forgotten because his device had no use, could not play back sound, he did nothing to improve it and he had little idea what to do with it

So it's like a seismograph for sound? Makes me wonder if there is a seismograph somewhere that can play back recordings :)

Of course there are... can't all of them do that?

I think that parent meant "recreate recorded earthquakes" ;)

The notion of not knowing why recording sound could be useful to me is hard to grasp as someone who has always been around it. It is extremely difficult to understand societies of the past.

Well keep in mind that most places had some kind of live musical venue.

I seem to recall that when the early recording studios were opened, musicians were not interested. This because they considered themselves entertainers, not assembly line workers.

And frankly i find that the best musicians are those that focus on the stage first and foremost even today. Those that gets remembered most fondly are those that can get up on stage and actually adapt to and interact with the audience rather than just go through a routine and bow out.

Never mind that early on the equipment was sensitive and fiddly. The Edison design involved either paper or solid cylinders wrapped around a rotating shaft. And the output was a mechanically driven membrane attached to a bullhorn.

The vacuum tube, and thus the amplifier, didn't show up for another 30 years.

Technically, Edison invented the vacuum tube - he just didn't completely understand it or its usefulness entirely.

That's why what was later termed "thermionic emission":


...is also known as the "Edison Effect" (though the effect was discovered by others much earlier, and re-discovered over time - Edison being just one in the chain).

His whole purpose was in trying to find out why his light bulbs filaments broke and burned out, and why there was darkening near the positive terminal of the bulb.

I won't go further with this, but I do often wonder if Tesla, while he worked with Edison, had any contact with this part of Edison's operations? In everything I've read on both inventors, it would seem like the answer is "no"; Tesla started working for Edison in June of 1884, and Edison took out a patent on the effect in 1883, and exhibited it in 1884.

The timeline is close, but for some reason Tesla either didn't have contact with the device, or dismissed it - as far as I can tell, though, it was likely the former, because I've never read anything from him where he discussed it.

Which is a pity. Had they not had the "breakup" of the century (which resulted in an insane rivalry ala "War of the Currents") - I am certain that Tesla would have both seen and understood the usefulness of the work, and would have been able to scientifically describe its workings most likely. Electronic technology would have been advanced by almost 30 years or so (whether or not that would have been a good thing we cannot know).

EDIT: years

ala -> aka "The War ...

Not sure of the specifics but by context I'm assuming that was the intent.

I think French "Ă  la" was the intent.

Yes, and I think the intent of the correction was that "a la" is incorrect and AKA is correct in context. The rivalry described wasn't "along the lines of" The War of Currents, it _was_ (also known as) The War of Currents.

Critically there was a pecking order and enormous social signalling and numerous middlemen working it.

A random piano player didn't appear in a random bar, there were agents working things such that your 60th percentile musician tended to appear in the 60th percentile bar (or at least 60th percentile of PAYMENT regardless of bar quality LOL).

Everyone involved in the system was very interested in their relative position in the pecking order vs money greasing the wheels.

Proposing that you scrap that and play a recording is very strange. First of all it was a long time until a random bartender could operate the playback machine as a secondary task. So you need a musical specialist and its not immediately apparent that a record mechanic or record engineer is going to be cheaper than some random vocalist. Meanwhile you lost your spot in the pecking order and people who want to hear music while drinking and dancing are going to be confused. Instead of paying a small amount of untaxed undocumented revenue to the band your agent found, you now have to raise capital and you have to purchase and install hardware and you have to maintain it when it breaks and you have to operate it. Note the latter has a lot of both "you" doing labor and "you" financing whereas the old system your agent took care of making a guitar player show up with the guitar the player purchased and tuned and maintained. Its not that great of a deal for the venue owner.

As an analogy, locally there is a college marching band that is competitive with other marching bands and they put on quite a show. Technically I could replace their instruments with MIDI connected drum machines and they'd sound better. I could replace the whole marching band with a 90s audio CD boom box and a single veteran soldier who can march. In practice they see themselves as a competitive marching band team, not as a commodity source of drum music. The ideal commodity source of drum music is a CD boombox, but football games have marching bands perform which is a totally different situation.

I wonder if in the history of marching band competition anyone has ever entered a dude carrying a boombox playing the output of a computer MIDI interfaced drum machine. I think a good audio engineer could produce a recording that technically sounds superior to any human powered marching band, but it misses the point of the greater marketplace its a part of.

You could model it as the ancient guild system and there's already an entrenched guild operating very successfully in the space.

(edited to also add, at the time, there were mechanical sources of music and they were the absolute bottom of the pecking order, only a total dive bar would have an "organ grinder" or literally a jewelry music box, so here's a nicer mechanical source of music, but mechanical music is bottom tier, and here you are trying to get the nicest dive bar in town to make a massive capital and labor investment, not gonna happen... A good analogy today would be, um, inflatable women are not seen as a high status symbol, household good, but supposedly AI will make something like the cult classic "Cherry 2000" movie a reality for better or worse someday, although the guy selling "Cherry 3.11" or "Cherry 95" or "Cherry 98" is going to have a rough time selling until Cherry 2000 hits the market, and no I'm not making this up there really is a legit cult classic movie "Cherry 2000")

I wonder if musicians of the time complained about the "automation" of their jobs?

Yes. Past attitudes were absurdly parochial.

Half of Bach's manuscripts were lost. Writing was invented for tax purposes. Even natural selection sat on the genetic code for a billion years before branching out into multicellular life.

Actually, some of the earliest writings we have (in Mesopotamia) are for managing beer production supply chains.

Other early mathematical/written work was for taxes and debt records, but also recording business transactions, adjudicating land boundary disputes, managing subcontracted work quotas, and so on. Then later of course we get written legal codes, astronomical records, religious texts, satirical stories complaining about scribes’ incompetent and hypocritical bosses, personal letters, ...

Great read, it might be around 4000 years old and yet feels so actual.

> taxes and debt records

Probably along the lines of "X owes me a beer!"

Early hieroglyphics: "tipcoin! 1 beer"

Back when the blockchain was a chain of blocks.

You made me lol. Thank you :-)

Fine! Most of the credit goes to Chapter 6 of David Deutsch's The Beginning of Infinity.

>Half of Bach's manuscripts were lost.

So? How does that make "past attitudes" any more "absurdly parochial" than ours, since the vast majority could care less for Bach and classical music today?

>Writing was invented for tax purposes.

Well, taxes were invented to help build cities and defend them, so there's that.

I don't believe missing the value of new technology can be relegated to "societies of the past."

Personal computers and the internet both had really slow starts, for two really big examples.

I'm sure there are technologies sitting around right now with vast potential that our society doesn't value.

Yeah the net didn't really boom until we could use the web to shop, effectively turning it into a more accessible mail order catalog.

These days it seems to have turned into something akin to TV shop, with the addition of an interactive link on top of the video stream.

Eh, I think the net boomed without needing online shopping. Lots of people were and are using the Net 99%-100% of the time for non-shopping purposes. The net boom drivers were:


-Funny cat pics/videos, etc. eBaumsWorld etc


-Online gaming


-YouTube (see above)

Outside of email what you list largely came after the dot-coms bubble crashed.

Porn was alive and well before. Forums as well. Blogs came later, if I remember right. Online gaming existed, but was much smaller (of course).

Blogs were around long before, and the term "blog" to refer to them was even coined around the beginning of the .com bubble (1997) , not after the crash (2000-2002).


Some things seem so obvious. How can those old people not immediately realize the implications of recorded and proliferated sound? How could Charlie Chaplin possibly think that talkies were a passing fad? How can people today think that our media isn't heading towards the virtual, our computation towards brain interfacing?

I think it is just the environment. We grew up with computers. Technology is advancing at a crazy rate compared to what it was 100 years ago. The idea of things constantly changing just didn't exist...because things generally didn't change.

In my lifetime people went from a single family landline phone to every family member carrying an internet connected smartphone over just 20 years. There just wasn't that rapid pace of change in any time period before now.

Different kinds of technology accelerate at different rate.

Most of the time it follows some kind of S curve, and i dear say that the IC, and thus the computer, is hitting the flattening top of the S these days.

Lots of people today think electric cars are a fad, renewables are unworkable, climate change doesn't exist, automation/self-driving cars won't replace manual labor, etc etc. Some of those will seem obvious with hindsight.

It wasn't useful because you couldn't play it back. The title of this article is awful; it encourages all these comments fixating on the "no one cared" aspect while if you read the article, it's quite obvious why no one cared. When we think of "recorded sound", being able to listen to those sounds is implicit in our minds. This invention is only recording sound in the technical sense, not the colloquial sense.

> The notion of not knowing why recording sound could be useful to me is hard to grasp as someone who has always been around it.

This seems like (from their point of view) the Blub paradox (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_Graham_(computer_programm... ), and (from our point of view) something of its converse. From their point of view, they couldn't see the importance of sound recording because they didn't have any existing mechanisms to make use of it. From our point of view, we can't not see the importance of sound recording, because we have so many ways of making use of it.

(Kind of like how, once you know the effect being demonstrated in https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vJG698U2Mvo , you not only no longer experience it, but find it hard to believe that you ever did.)

    > The notion of not knowing why recording sound could 
    > be useful to me is hard to grasp
Because that clearly isn't the whole story.

Culture hasn't change as much as you seem to think in the past 150 years. Heck, some institutions, like the Catholic Church, have been trucking along since the Roman Era!

Since I studied how humans sometimes have poor judgments for a briefly, I had the opposite reaction: I immediately imagined some young person from the 1800's saying "Well gee why would you want to record sounds when you go can go hear them live!"

Check out something the historians call "presentism". It's really enlightening in regards to helping think about why past breakthroughs were not fully realized.

Those of you flummoxed by this probably at some point have questioned why study the immune systems of bacteria (led to the biggest breakthrough of late, crispr) or number theory (led to all cryptography) or build an app to make photos disappear or other things that only later become obviously "useful".

You had me until the bit about disappearing photos - that's not an innovation, anybody who has wanted to has always been able to make photos disappear after sending. It's a bit of a false equivalence to mention a twist on sending someone a photo in the same sentence as you mention such great research efforts as number theory and bacterial immunology.

I entertained the thought of how strange the article is, and yet I don't think I've ever felt that way about any of the innovations you're describing: in fact I may I'm probably a little too slavish in my trust of the direction our collective research infrastructure.

That isn't to say I disagree with you in general though. Given where and when I was born relative to the article's setting, it's a lot more understanding that my baseline would be faith in the long-term wisdom of scientific progress.

The interesting issue to me isn't the particulars of this one case. It's that when you invent something very novel, nobody cares because they can't anchor it in the scheme of things they already care about. Effectively, they can't "see" what you've done. Communicating the value of your invention can be very challenging.

That's basically the Inventor's Curse summed up as well as could ever be.

"The inventor is always cursed to invent something that is just as difficult to explain as it is to invent."

This is the value behind MAYA "Most Advanced Yet Acceptable" pioneered by Raymond Loewy. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Raymond_Loewy

We are getting back to that now.

At the saturation limit of recorded sound, few care, and not to the degree it made it once a major and inescapable cultural force.

Of course back then for a short window (50s to 70s and up to mid-nineties or so) music was expensive to buy, limited collection (needed mail order for exotic tastes and of course you could hardly sample them), the top 40 songs were heard by everyone and anyone because cars just had radio (some novelties aside), and there were few tv channels, no video, surely no YouTube, no internet, no social media, no mobile phones, no mobile apps, no (or very limited and primitive) video games, no VR, no cat videos, no memes, no reality style celebrities (you could get some gossip, but not 24/7 gossip), no Twitter, and so on. Popular music stood out as a unique way to have fun, escape, bond, etc then.

Is going from recording to playback a trivial step? The article doesn't make this clear, but if this step is nontrivial, then Edison's contribution still seems like a big deal. The article even seems to imply that the format he recorded the sound in was not amenable to playback.

I wonder if the poor quality of the recording made it hard to see how it could be useful for music.

I'm reminded of 3D printing. The output today is generally shitty but the progress will lead towards something very important.

Years ago I sent the first "3D fax" across the world. It felt remarkable, but it didnt pick up any attention.

3D printing is a far cooler technology once you ignore the maker-community and the ridiculous claim that home 3D printing is going to completely revolutionise life for the majority of the population. Being able to 3D print a custom-patterned plastic cup is fun and all that, but the real game is stuff like 3D printing for industrial prototyping, medical applications, and so on.

How is the tech cooler when you _remove_ from consideration one of its potential niches (even if it's a lesser one)? I don't buy the spectacular claim as expressed above either, but it's not beyond to me to think of how it could have a non-revolutionary but solid impact for personal consumers' lives at some point.

Hmm, poor choice of words - I don't really mean removing that niche from consideration, but rather ignoring anyone who thinks that that niche is in fact the main way 3D printing is going to change the world.

It's already revolutionizing aircraft and spacecraft construction. Where I work we have a small mechanical engineering team and they love popping prototype enclosures out of their 3D rig. Seems big already! With massive efficiency gains often comes generational leaps.

That, and the fiddly nature of the early equipment. Never mind that all you had for amplification was a bullhorn.

For most commercial venues one already had resident musicians (keep in mind that as late as the 60s the Beatles worked as such in Germany before they hit it big). As the saying goes, don't shoot the pianist.

He beat the more well-known inventor Thomas Edison by 20 years, though his accomplishments were only recognized over the last decade.

Just another example of how being first or early, even in groundbreaking things, means you will probably not find success.

As strange as it seems, all the French inventor cared about was seeing what sound looked like.

>Just another example of how being first or early, even in groundbreaking things, means you will probably not find success.

Well no, in this case the inventor of sound recording just had an entirely different goal.

And neither he nor anyone exposed to this idea were able to make the connection to playback ability. I do find that a bit surprising.

Apparently Scott first had to convince people that sound came from vibrations.

> Scott proved that vibrations are truly how sounds came to our ears. But Thompson says the scientific community had trouble accepting his breakthrough.

So maybe it's not too surprising.

Any violin/piano player already knew that.

I'm skeptical that they knew that vibrating air was what our ears perceived as sound. If you know a little about the history of science, there are tons of theories that held up for some time that are no less "ridiculous" to our eyes than some special medium moving through air that our ears process as sound. The fact that the _source_ of sound was known to vibrate doesn't exclude this possibility, and _that's_ what violin/piano players knew about (Sources of visible light often give off heat, but saying that light and heat are the same thing is not implied by that).

See my other reply to this topic, which is directly to your point.

Scott's invention made pretty drawings on soot-covered paper. Edison's invention allowed one to play back recorded sound. Just another example of how novelty will not succeed in the face of actually useful inventions.

It's the difference between an MVP and an MP. Just because it works, doesn't make it an M-V-P.

The phonautograph was a perfectly viable 'product', as a tool for investigating the physical properties of sound.

So your confusion underscores my point: viable means that the marketplace wants and does buy it. i.e. it's enough of a product to to make sales and take off. If nobody is buying it (or for free models, using it), it's not an MVP. It's just a working product.

So the V in MVP stands for "true Scotsman"?

Similar. It is a mistake to say, "We made our MVP but nobody wanted it." That's a contradiction in terms. The minimum VIABLE product is the minimum thing that people do want, and are willing to pay for. That's what viable means. What do you think viable means? (Genuinely curious.)

As I've heard it defined, the "viable" part basically means that you could tell someone with a straight face that this product would be useful to them. It doesn't need to have wide-market appeal, since the point is to start as small as possible and use early feedback to guide the development of the full product.

>you could tell someone with a straight face that this product would be useful to them

The title of the article we're reading is literally "no one cared."

And that's literally a rhetorical exaggeration.

In my reading, it was not enough to be a viable product, because it did not play back sounds. For this reason, it was not yet marketable; it could not be sold. It was less than the minimum product which could be sold. I think it's pretty clear and I'm kind of shocked that you disagree with me.

But the guy wasn't trying to market it, he was trying to investigate something. For his purposes it seems to have worked and been viable.

It's just that his purposes weren't commercial in nature, they were scientific.

Which is why he didn't expand on it until he got to the MVP stage. Not wanting to make an MVP, because you're a scientist not a salesman, does not mean that what you do make actually already is an MVP. It's a distinction with a difference. I just used it as an example to illustrate the idea.

I don't think I'm the one that's confused. The phonautograph was perfectly viable for the purpose for which it was created - to study the physical nature of sound. This is evident because others within the scientific world of the time copied/modified/used the design, in order to do just that, e.g. Alexander Graham Bell.

The term MVP is from the context of a go-to-market strategy (i.e. for a startup). It's not a reflection on whether a tool performs its purpose.

The guy was doing scientific experimentation, having a go to market strategy wasn't involved at all.

It's a bit like saying a cat playing with the piece of paper is a bad writer because it doesn't have a publishing deal lined up.

And after his initial work, Edison just sat on it for about 10 years until a competitor started to come along. At which point, he did some more work to make his own product marketable.

If you want extrinsic rewards, you need to provide extrinsic value.

> "A sound separated from a sounding body was just sort of a conceptual leap," she says. "I'm not sure people had the cultural context to invent this stuff."

It makes one wonder what currently isn't being invented simply because it doesn't fit into our conceptual framework. We have a somewhat more rich framework now than people did in the 19th century, of course, but the number of things we have to play with- computers, genomes, brain scans, rockets- has also gotten much larger and more complicated.

> It makes one wonder what currently isn't being invented simply because it doesn't fit into our conceptual framework.

It's fun to think up thought exercises to try and help break out of our conceptual framework. On a smaller scale, an approach I've played around with is taking attributes of existing technologies that have certain things in common, then diagramming them in different ways and looking for holes.

As a concrete example, let's go back to 2005. You might reason that e-mails and blog posts are both kinds of written messages, however blogs have an open audience, while e-mails are sent to specific recipients, so a closed audience. Separately, you might compare e-mails to text messages, and realize that they are very similar, but one is long form while the other is short form. You can draw this as a table:

        | short form | long form |
   open |     ???    | blogs     |
 closed |  SMS texts | e-mail    |
Now try to figure out what fits in the missing box (short form, open). It's Twitter! (Or even better, decentralized micro blogging.)

Hey I've got one of those:

                          | Short-term discussion | Ongoing discussion |
  Admins create subforums | Digg/Old Reddit       | Forums             |
   Users create subforums | Reddit                | ???                |

Stack Overflow?

Dark matter is the new ether, perhaps, waiting for its Einstein?

"Scott proved that vibrations are truly how sounds came to our ears. But Thompson says the scientific community had trouble accepting his breakthrough"

Wat? How the hell did bell makers think bells worked?

Yeah, I don't believe that, either. Stringed instruments were commonplace, and the instrument makers pretty obviously knew how they worked.

Just guessing (I'd love to know the real reason):

Just because we know the object vibrates when making sound doesn't mean we know that sound travels through the air as a bunch of vibrations. Or that are ear is picking up vibrations. Maybe they thought the vibrations were something like the heat given off from friction. Not necessarily the main thing, just a side effect.

For all we knew maybe it could be some sort of "sound light" or magnetism like thing. Someone had to prove that it was vibrations all the way from the start to the end.

Loud sounds make nearby things vibrate, which is easily felt. Even louder sounds, like cannon fire, had obvious concussions and visible shock waves, and you could feel the thump in your chest.

A bell ringing will set up visible vibrations in a nearby cup of water.

Instrument makers shaped sound in air boxes in violins, and shaped it in horns. Sound has obvious propagation delays through air.

Maybe lay people had strange notions of sound, like flat earthers, but educated and observant people would know better. The evidence was all around, it did not need a lab experiment.

"The evidence was all around". -- well that can be said about anything. I'm sure 100 years from now there will be a similar post saying "the evidence was all around for faster than light travel" or the like

Also, human throats vibrate when speaking or humming. Drums, bells, triangles, and plucked string instruments have visible vibrations.

And the eardrum itself with a diaphragm is clearly set up to detect air vibrations, not some mystical force.

Guidelines | FAQ | Support | API | Security | Lists | Bookmarklet | Legal | Apply to YC | Contact