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An ear for an eye

With the advent of radio broadcasting in the early 1920s, a mass changeover from the eye to the ear had begun. Those who had grown up in a fragmented print-based visual sequential culture were plunged into a new auditory world of simultaneous information created by radio.  

The microphone promised to do for the ear what the microscope had done for the eye. Whilst the telephone provided a physical extension of the human sense of hearing over a distance, the microphone promised a magnification-like function that would enable people to hear sounds that they had never heard before.

Until about 1920, gramophone recordings were made by direct sound impact, shouting or singing into a horn. Between 1920 and 1922, Peel-Conner carbon granule microphones were the standard in British wireless broadcasting.

Figure 1

Black and white photograph of Dame Ellie Melba singing into an early microphone from 1920

Australian operatic soprano Dame Nellie Melba making the world’s first radio broadcast by a professional musician, 15 June 1920, using a Marconi C.100 L microphone of the Peel-Conner type

Video 1

Black and white photograph of Elgar conducting a symphony orchestra with Beatrice Harrison on Cello recording into early microphones

Composer Edward Elgar conducting the Adagio of his Cello Concerto for an HMV recording using the acoustic process with Beatrice Harrison as soloist, 16 November 1920

In early 1923, an electro-dynamic microphone which worked on the same principle as a telephone earpiece came into use. It was more sensitive than the early carbon microphones, but had limited frequency response. Its designer, the first chief engineer of the Marconi Company Captain Henry Joseph Round, attempted to deal with its limited frequency characteristics by using four of them in parallel, along with ten stages of amplification, to pick up something resembling the full range of human hearing. Four of these massive instruments – they weighed twenty pounds each – were mounted in a wooden box, with four large ports at the front, on a tripod. ‘Like a howitzer battery,’ wrote BBC chief engineer Peter Eckersley in Popular Wireless (West, 1972, p 17). A higher quality, more practicable microphone was needed to help the fledgling medium of broadcast radio appeal to a wider public.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/150402/002