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An Early 20th-Century Research Physicist Looks to the Past and Future of Recorded Music

by Sarah Thorngate 


Tags: arts, music, recording technology, phonograph,

phonograph“Not the least wonder of science is its ability to convert shellac—excreted by an insect—into a vehicle for profound emotional experience,” wrote research physicist George R. Harrison in the November 1938 issue of Technology Review. The January/February 2009 issue resurrects his spirited description of the industrial process behind phonographs and his prescient thoughts on the ways improved recording technology could change the art of music making.

“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…At one moment we see a mass of dough; 30 seconds later it emerges from the press transformed—the “Prelude to Lohengrin”!

“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…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.”

Listen to an 1897 gramophone recording below:

A Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight 

Image by sogni­­ hal, licensed under Creative Commons.