As Mel Gibson’s William Wallace rode back and forth across the fields of Stirling, we see his want, his goal, his desire – not only for freedom, but to unite the Scottish and hype up everyone watching his movie. Since the very beginning, humans have always held this desire to reach people. It is a desire rooted in the speaker’s want to project, the actor’s dream of being in a movie, the musician’s omnipresent pull to play in front of an audience. It is a desire that developed into smoke signals, acoustic amphitheaters, and innovative instruments. But it wasn’t until the late 19th century that this fleeting human desire stepped onto the road of becoming a firmly rooted reality of mankind.
The first iteration of the microphone was invented in the mid-1870s by Englishman David Edward Hughes. Although his glory was eventually robbed by Edison in a patent dispute, neither man knew the full scope of what their creation would entail. Microphone varieties would soon explode – Wente in 1916 with the first condenser mic, Round in 1923 with the “magnetophon”, Olson in 1930 with the ribbon mic, Blumlein and Holman in the 30s with the moving coil microphone, which would lead into digital, optic, laser, and interferometers. But more important than microphone varieties and improvements in sound quality, there came accompanying inventions that developed in the same time frame – telephones, phonographs, film reels, and eventually vinyl records, tapes, CDs, VCRs, DVDs, mp3. Everything that had to do with recording, all enabled by the microphone.
More than opening the doors for an outpouring of other innovations, the invention of the microphone enabled the people. Orators could now reach larger audiences and spread their words further through the mediums of radio and later, television. Musicians could now record their music and sell it, immortalizing their art for generations for come – spawning an entire industry of music that has evolved to become a dominant part of our culture and everyday life today. Stage performers could now be heard by audiences that grew larger and larger, eventually generating the movie industry and leading to the glamour of Hollywood as we know it today. Not just the famous were affected – everyday people could now use the telephone to communicate with friends and loved ones no matter how far away, they could now consume media in more and more interactive ways, and they could now capture their own ideas, music, voice, and words in the form of a recording and step onto their own path to fame.
The recording quickly became a powerful tool to promote global connections – people from anywhere, at any time, who spoke any language could now hear the same things as millions of others around the globe. The microphone and the recordings it created allowed high school kids living in the United States to hop on the PSY train or listen to Yanagi Nagi, millennials to fawn over the Beatles or become obsessed with Queen, and artists like Eminem and Tupac to overcome their humble beginnings and reach people across the nation and the entire globe. Then those exact same people can turn and become enchanted by Pavarotti’s Nessun Dorma, Rostropovich’s Bach or Rubinstein’s Chopin.
The most impactful breakthrough in technology didn’t come as a single event that shattered the fabric of the world, nor did it culminate in the coming of a new age. Instead, it enabled and enhanced the voice of all future generations, allowing people to reach further, express more, and spread their art and ideas across the world. The microphone resulted in the development and unity of global culture: it allowed the voice of the people to be heard, their ideas to be expressed and spread, and perhaps most importantly for us, it captures and immortalizes the sounds we create in the suspended animation of recording.