The History of Microphones

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A microphone is a device for converting acoustic power into electric power that has essentially similar wave characteristics. These devices convert sound waves into electrical voltages that are eventually converted back into sound waves that are amplified through speakers. Today, these handy devices are often associated with music and entertainment, but the history of the microphone dates back as early as the 1600s when scientists started to look for ways to amplify sound.


The 1600s

1665: While the word “microphone” wasn’t used until the 19th century, one inventor was a pioneer in the world of transmitting sound across distances. Robert Hooke, an English physicist, is credited with developing an acoustic cup and string style phone.


The Early 1800s

1827: Sir Charles Wheatstone was the first person to coin the phrase "microphone." A renowned English physicist and inventor, Wheatstone is best known for inventing the telegraph. His interests were varied, and he devoted some of his work to acoustics during the 1820s. According to Interesting Engineering, Wheatstone was among the first scientists “to formally recognize that sound was in fact transmitted by waves through mediums.” This knowledge led him to explore ways of transmitting sounds from one place to another, even over long distances. He worked on a device that could amplify weak sounds, which was called a microphone.


The Late 1800s

1876: Emile Berliner invented what many consider the first microphone while working with famed inventor Thomas Edison. The device used was a telephone voice transmitter. Berliner, a German-born American inventor, was best known for his invention of the Gramophone and the gramophone record, which was patented in 1887.

Berliner had seen a Bell Company demonstration at the U.S. Centennial Exposition that inspired him to find ways to improve the newly invented telephone. The Bell Telephone Company was impressed with what the inventor came up with and bought Berliner's microphone patent for $50,000. According to Wired.com, Berliner originally owned the patent for the microphone, but eventually that patent was overturned and later credited to Edison.

1878: Just a couple years after Berlin and Edison created their microphone, David Edward Hughes, a British-American inventor and professor of music, developed the first carbon microphone. Hughes's microphone was the early model for the various carbon microphones still in use today.


The Early 1900s

1915: The development of the vacuum tube amplifier helped improve the volume output for devices, including the microphone.

1916: The condenser microphone was patented by inventor E.C. Wente while working at Bell Laboratories; the device is often referred to as a capacitor or an electrostatic microphone. His task, at the time, was to improve the audio quality for telephones, but his work also enhanced the microphone.

1928: In Germany, Georg Neumann and Co. was founded and rose to fame for its microphones. Georg Neumann designed the first commercial condenser microphone, nicknamed “the bottle” because of its shape.

1931: Western Electric marketed its 618 electrodynamic transmitter—the first dynamic microphone.


The Mid-1900s

1942: With the invention of the radio, new broadcasting microphones were created. The ribbon microphone was invented for radio broadcasting.

1959: The Unidyne III microphone was the first uni-directional device that was designed to collect sound from the top of the microphone, rather than the side. This set a new level of design for microphones in the future.

1964: Bell Laboratories researchers James West and Gerhard Sessler received patent no. 3,118,022 for the electroacoustic transducer, an electret microphone. The electret microphone offered greater reliability and higher precision at a lower cost and with a smaller size. It revolutionized the microphone industry, with almost one billion manufactured each year.

1970s: Both dynamic and condenser mics were further enhanced, allowing for a lower sound level sensitivity and a clearer sound recording. A number of miniature mics were also developed during this decade.

1983: Sennheiser developed the first clip-on microphones, one that was a directional mic (MK# 40) and one that was designed for the studio (MKE 2). These microphones are still popular today.

1990s: Neumann introduced the KMS 105, a condenser model designed for live performances, setting a new standard for quality.

2010: The Eigenmike was released, a microphone that is composed of several high-quality microphones arranged on the surface of a solid sphere, allowing the sound to be captured from a variety of directions. This allowed for greater control when editing and rendering sound.