The History of Microphones

Audio Engineering From the 1600s to the 21st Century

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A microphone is a device for converting acoustic power into electric power with essentially similar wave characteristics. These devices convert sound waves into electrical voltages that are subsequently converted back into sound waves and amplified through speakers. Today, microphones are most often associated with the music and entertainment industries, but the devices date back as far as the 1600s when scientists began seeking out ways in which they could amplify sound.

The 1600s

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

The 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 time the study of acoustics during the 1820s. Wheatstone was among the first scientists to formally recognize that sound was "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 he called a microphone.

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

After seeing a Bell Company demonstration at the U.S. Centennial Exposition, Berliner was inspired to find ways to improve the newly invented telephone. The Bell Telephone Company's management was impressed with the device he came up with, a telephone voice transmitter, and bought Berliner's microphone patent for $50,000. (Berliner's original patent was overturned and later credited to Edison.)

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

The 20th Century

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

1916: The condenser microphone, often referred to as a capacitor or an electrostatic microphone, was patented by inventor E.C. Wente while working at Bell Laboratories. Wente had been tasked with improving the audio quality for telephones but his innovations also enhanced the microphone.

1920s: As broadcast radio became one of the premier sources for news and entertainment around the world, the demand for improved microphone technology grew. In response, the RCA Company developed the first ribbon microphone, the PB-31/PB-17, for radio broadcasting.

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.

1957: Raymond A. Litke, an electrical engineer with Educational Media Resources and San Jose State College invented and filed a patent for the first wireless microphone. It was designed for multimedia applications including television, radio, and higher education.

1959: The Unidyne III microphone was the first uni-directional device 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 units 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.

The 21st Century

2000s: MEMS (Microelectromechanical systems) microphones begin making inroads in portable devices including cell phones, headsets, and laptops. The trend for miniature mics continues with applications such as wearable devices, smart home, and automobile technology,

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.

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