Ring in the Old Year

AGBell

"Before anything else, preparation is the key to success."

Alexander Graham Bell

Ring in the Old Year

A new year always brings excitement and great expectations. What will happen? Will there be a big event that will shape the world for generations? What new technology will come? The 2015 Consumer Electronics Show (CES 2015) has already promised us a 3D-printed titanium bicycle, super thin 4K TV sets, realistic robots, and a plethora of miniature drones with cameras. And everybody's wanting to lay eyes on the first Apple Watch.

One hundred years ago, people were just as intrigued with the promise of new technology. Automobiles were reaching speeds of nearly 100 mph on the racetrack. The first 3D movie was shown. Though Europe was embroiled in the "Great War," there were technological advances from that, like the first all-metal airplane.

Communications was making leaps and bounds as well. On January 25, 1915, Alexander Graham Bell picked up a phone in New York City and called his early collaborator Thomas Watson. Unlike 39 years earlier, Watson wasn't in the next room. He was in San Francisco. They had just made the first transcontinental telephone call.

Radio transmission was also advancing leaps and bounds in 1915 when not only the first transcontinental radiotelephone message was made, but the first transatlantic one as well. One hundred years later, we're making phone calls to space.

Thomas Edison was still toiling away on inventions. He would rework an old technology to record telephone calls. The "telescribe" recorded phone conversations on wax cylinders. But Valdemar Poulsen's "telegraphone," a wire recorder answering machine, was more successful (Poulsen is also credited with inventing the magnetic tape recorder).

One of the most exciting inventions for music and audio enthusiasts was the Audion Piano. Several years earlier, Lee De Forest was testing an improved vacuum tube he invented and accidentally discovered he could create audio tones with it. Thus, the first audio oscillator was born. By using a beat-frequency oscillator system (heterodyning) controlled by capacitors, resistors, and coils, the Audion Piano could create the sound of a whole orchestra. Electronic music, including the creepy-sounding Theramin, is based on this technology.

The grand-daddy of music technology inventors was born in 1915, Lester William Polsfuss. Who? You may know him as Les Paul, musician and inventor of the electric guitar. It has become one of the most heard, played, and loved musical instrument of all time. He also invented multi-track recording (layering music parts), vari-speed recording (recording at a slower speed but playing back at normal speed), and tape echo (like the Echo-Plex). He also revolutionized production by producing, playing, recording, and mixing entire radio shows at his home.

1915 was indeed a pretty big year for audio and music technology. Hear that baby crying? That's the 2015 baby. That baby just might invent something that will have us still talking about it in 2115. I'd better start watching the birth announcements.

Did You Know?

The Audion Piano could change tones by a sliding contact, an adjustable condenser, or even touching certain parts of the circuitry. De Forest described the sounds it made as those from an orchestra, like a violin, cello, woodwinds, and muted brass. He also described the less desirable sounds as "nerve racking maniacal cacophonies of a lunatic swing band." He called it a Squawk - a - Phone. A news account about a concert using the Audion described it making sounds like a flute, violin, a bird singing, and a Hawaiian ukulele.

"You have doubtless heard the peculiar, plaintive notes of the Hawaiian ukulele, produced by the players sliding their fingers along the strings after they have been put in vibration. Now, this same effect, which can be weirdly pleasing when skilfully made, can he obtained with the musical Audion.”



Lee De Forest held over 300 patents, mostly in radio technology. His public demonstrations of the Audion were mostly efforts to attract investors to his radio transmitter business. Like most entrepreneurs in emerging technologies, he had skeptics. He was once on trial for misleading the public for monetary gain. The most "incredulous" thing said by De Forest? That the human voice would be transmitted across the Atlantic before many years.

Tech Notes

  • The theramin was one of the first music instruments that could be controlled without physical contact with the instrument.
  • The theramin usually has two antennas that sense the position of the performer's hands. One hand controls the pitch, or oscillation. The other controls the amplitude.
  • The theramin came from Soviet-sponsored experiments in proximity sensors in 1920.
  • The Guiness World Record for largest theramin ensemble is 272 players (2013 in Japan).
  • Many believe that a Theramin was used in the Beach Boys' hit "Good Vibrations." It was actually an "electotheramin," a much easier to play electronic instrument that produced sounds similar to a theramin. It was invented by former Glen Miller trombonist Paul Tanner and Bob Whitsell.
  • Tanner modeled the electrothermin's pitch control slide after the slide on a trombone.
  • Tanner's electrotheramin can also be heard in several science fiction movies and on the theme song to television's My Favorite Martian.

Neil Kesterson

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