The phonautograph

Scott de Martinville, a French printer, began taking a hobbyist’s interest in the physics and anatomy related to sound. Since the 1500s, scientists had concluded that sound waves travel via the air and also travel four times faster via water. They had also figured out the anatomy of the ear and how it “received” sound. As stenographers were the best transcribers of sound, Scott created a device called the “Phonautograph” in 1857 that transcribed sound into sound waves.

Image Source – Auto Engineering Society

He had sought to automate stenography and expected to create a new language around interpreting sound waves. This didn’t work.

However, Thomas Alva Edison went on to invent the phonograph which he expected would be used to send audio letters. Then, Graham Bell invented the telephone – which he thought would be used to distribute live music. They had it in reverse!

Thus, phones brought us closer. The first international line between the US and Europe in the 1950s could just handle 24 simultaneous international calls. Telephones popularized “hello” and switchboards employed women professionally. Phones also gave us Bell Labs – an organization that created nearly every major technology – radio, television, microprocessors, fiber optics, cell phones, computers.

More on Bell Labs next week.

Telephones made skyscrapers possible because they made transmitting messages between groups easy. Elevators would need to accommodate many many people if we were still doing human memos. – Steven Johnson


Source and thanks to: How we got to now by Steven Johnson

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