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"Wavy Lines of Sound"

A research physicist looks to the past and future of recorded music.
December 22, 2008

When George R. Harrison, then director of applied physics at MIT, surveyed the state of the art in audio recording and playback in the November 1938 issue of ­Technology Review, he was full of wonder at the progress achieved in the 60 years since Edison had introduced the phonograph. Although cheap and durable vinyl had yet to replace shellac as the recording industry’s medium of choice, and all-electric record players had only recently superseded acoustic ones, Harrison confidently assured his readers that they were on the cusp of a new, “high-fidelity” era.

Birth of a record: “At one moment we see a mass of dough; 30 seconds later it emerges from the press transformed.”

Grown long accustomed to the scratchy futility of the mechanical phonograph, the world is only slowly realizing the possibilities of more perfect sound reproduction. The electric phonograph and the talking motion picture as we know them are far from perfect in their re-creation of sound, but this limitation now arises from the high cost of the apparatus needed to achieve perfect results. Perfectly faithful reproducing devices should eventually be available as commonly as imperfect ones are today.

This development was nothing short of a scientific miracle, Harrison proclaimed. He went on to describe in loving detail the industrial process by which records were mass-produced:

The sight of hundreds of steam-heated presses stamping out phonograph records is likely to give rise to that exaltation which is occasionally felt on viewing one of man’s accomplishments in fashioning nature to his ends. The juxtaposition of the results of art and of science seen under such ­circumstances may produce a peculiar ­emotional reaction.

Listen to some early recordings that reveal what Harrison unkindly termed u201cthe scratchy futility of the mechanical phonograph.u201d

  • CreateFlash(""); This 1899 recording of the ragtime standard “Hello, Ma Baby,” performed by Len Spencer, was a hit for the Berliner Gramophone Company, whose process for mass-producing shellac discs led to the birth of the record industry.

  • CreateFlash(""); “At the Ball That’s All,” performed by Harry Mayo and Harry Tally, was a 1915 offering from Thomas Edison’s Diamond Disc label. The recording was distributed on thick, heavy 10-inch discs, played at 80 RPM.

  • Since his 1877 invention of the phonograph, which recorded sound on a cone made of tinfoil, Edison had continued with the cylinder format until Emile Berliner’s disc records put an end to the wax-cylinder era. Although Edison’s discs, first introduced in 1911, were heavier and more expensive than competitors’ and were designed to be compatible only with the Edison phonograph, his patented production process promised superior durability and sound quality.

  • Credit: Library of Congress Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division

  • To hear more go to the Library of Congress American Memory collection

Before each record press stands a young woman, at her side a flat hot plate on which rectangular slabs of dough–made from shellac mixed with clay and other materials–are kept soft and pliable. When the press opens she inserts a mass of this dough between the chromium-plated record molds which carry the replicas of the wavy lines of sound on their surfaces, closes the jaws of the press, and releases a force of over 60 tons which squeezes the mass into a thin disk, impressing on its upper and lower surfaces the sound-track grooves from the master records. A moment later a spurt of water cools the press internally, the jaws open, and the ­operator takes the mold from a completed disk record, ready (after its rim has been ­burnished) to be played. At one moment we see a mass of dough; 30 seconds later it emerges from the press transformed–the “Prelude to Lohengrin”! Not the least wonder of science is its ability to convert shellac–excreted by an insect–into a vehicle for profound emotional experience.

Technological advances would not only increase exposure to the best in music, Harrison wrote, but also open up completely new avenues for musical participation and creation. Anticipating the karaoke machines and home recording setups of the 1970s, not to mention the remix and mashup culture of today (see “Bootleg Battle Lines”), he argued that ever-improving recording technology would change the way music was made.

There appear to be vast possibilities in the development of a new field of musical participation for the amateur, lying intermediate between listening to an expert performance, or to its reproduction, and aspiring, but less often inspiring, personal participation. …

At least one scientist with a musical bent, who possesses a home sound recorder, has gone so far as to play string quartets with himself. He first plays and records the cello part. Then he plays the resulting record through on a reproducer while he accompanies its playing with another part, say that of the viola. The second record is then played while he records it together with his rendition of the second violin part, and so again until all the parts of the quartet have been accumulated. If the quality of the recording can be made such that the music does not lose appreciably by successive re-recordings, the only limitation on any performer who wishes to make a full orchestral rendition by himself should be his own virtuosity! Of course there is also the less pleasing possibility that an amateur tenor might equally well thus take advantage of the wonders of science and produce his own barbershop chords.

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