The classic “ribbon” microphone that became an icon of radio broadcasting-RCA’s model 44A- was a hefty 8-pound device introduced in 1931. Unlike conventional microphones, in which air pressure from sound waves moves a diaphragm to produce an electrical signal, in a ribbon microphone, a tiny piece of foil hovering between two magnets created a signal when it moved in response to air velocity. Ribbon microphones’ warm sound worked particularly well with a singer’s or broadcaster’s voice, and they were uniquely useful in radio drama, as Bose fellow William R. Short of Bose Corp. in Framingham, Mass., explains. “They have this figure-eight pattern-they accept sound from the front and back, while rejecting sound from the sides.” As a result, actors at different positions around the microphone could sound as if they were far apart, even in different rooms.
The 44A was too bulky for widespread use in television and wasn’t effective outside the studio because wind gusts could blow the foil from between the magnets. Yet ribbon microphones remain popular today “because their unique transparent sound quality was better than carbon and early condenser microphones,” says audio engineer Bob Speiden, whose own ribbon microphones, developed in the 1980s, are still manufactured by Royer Labs.
Long before Microsoft Word’s talking paper clip started bending users out of shape, there was a feature-rich but trusty word processor: WordStar. According to telecommunications columnist John Dvorak, Rob Barnaby programmed the first version, released in 1979, in assembly language in four months, a feat that some at IBM later estimated was equal to 42 years of effort by a normal programmer. WordStar was the first word processor to compute page breaks on the fly. It introduced a new way of moving up, left, right or down in a document, by pressing control-E, S, D or X. Variants of this “WordStar diamond” (named for the arrangement of those keys) are still used in some programmers’ text editors today. WordStar also offered handy letter-transposing key commands and a view of the document that looked much like the final printout.
By 1984, WordStar International was the country’s largest software company, but WordStar2000, released in 1985, fared poorly against rival WordPerfect, and the company fell from its lead position. Still, WordStar laid the groundwork for today’s WYSIWYG, or “what you see is what you get,” systems. Perhaps its simplicity relative to today’s word processors is a virtue rather than a defect: A present-day WordStar Users Group testifies that the influential early application is still in use.
Edison’s Wax Cylinder
Audiophiles lament the passing of vinyl, which they perceive as having a richer sound than the compact disc. But the recorded disc (first made of vulcanite, then shellac and finally vinyl) was in its own day an upstart technology, elbowing out a superior medium for recording sound: the soda-can-shaped wax cylinder first manufactured by Thomas Edison in 1877. Edison chose to produce wax cylinders instead of discs because they were technically superior. In his book The Invisible Computer, technology-design guru Donald A. Norman explains that, with the cylinder, “each part passes under the stylus at the same speed. With discs, the outside edge moves past the stylus more rapidly than the parts near the center, and so the sound at the center deteriorates.” Another plus: People could make their own recordings on wax cylinders, while records were read-only.
Despite their technological virtues, Edison’s wax cylinders failed in the marketplace early in the century. RCA, which championed discs, rounded up a more recognizable group of recording artists. Records were also easier to stamp out en masse. Norman points to Edison’s cylinders as the principal example of a superior technology defeated by one that was inferior but “good enough.” Although the last cylinders were manufactured in 1929, the year Edison’s company closed, the band They Might Be Giants went to the Edison National Historic Site in New Jersey to record “I Can Hear You,” a track of their 1996 album Factory Showroom, on wax cylinder.