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Genius!2: Dave Swallow’s ‘A case of invention’

Ideas that changed the audio world from the 1800s until the 1980s

Dave Swallow, engineer and Audio Apparel Architect entrepreneur, contemplates the inventions of the past

It must have been so much easier to be an inventor in the past: there were so many good ideas left to discover, these days I think we are pretty well stocked on good discoveries and just left with the bad ones. This is why the people on this list are utter genius. They stuck with the great ideas, pursued it beyond frustration and built on something that would turn out to be world changing, and this is also probably why the rest of us are damp flannels.

World changing inventions? Let’s start with the electromagnet. Invented in 1825 by William Sturgeon, the electromagnet paved the way for speakers and microphones, without which our world would be very quiet (unless you’re in my house with a bunch of 8-year-olds). Sturgeon, the son of a Lancastrian shoesmith, spent the early 1800s in the army. He left in 1820 and taught himself mathematics and physics. In 1825, at the age of 41, he produced the electromagnet. If that is not a lesson in ‘it’s-never-too-late’, I don’t know what is.

Jump to 1877: long after the party for recorded sound had started and all the cocktail sausages had vanished, Thomas Alva Edison decided to join in with his phonograph. You see, before the phonograph it was possible to record sound, but playing it back was an entirely different game. And this is exactly what the phonograph does. The first mechanical device to do so. The great, great, great, grandfather of a DAW – but distinctly analogue.

Let’s FFWD to the late 1930s and the unveiling of the Unidyne Model 55 (the Elvis mic. The Model 55 evolved to symbolise not just The King, or an era of music, but the art of looking cool with a mic in your hand. It’s transcended time and become something that will now always be ‘clipart’ used to symbolise singers. The Unidyne wasn’t just classic design: it was also history in the making. It was the first microphone to use a single diaphragm and achieve a cardioid pick-up pattern.

The discovery of the Nyquist Theorem came about in 1949. This is less of an invention, more of a bunch of squiggly lines. Harry Nyquist developed his theories on transmitting data at Bell back in the 1930s; during the 1940s, Claude Shannon took the work that Nyquist had developed and basically proved the theories. The basic premise of the Nyquist-Shannon Theorem is that it is the bridge between continuous-time ‘analogue’ signals and discrete-time ‘digital’ signals. It basically sets the sample rate that gives us the samples captured from the analogue signal.

It’s 1952: the 8-Track tape has made it onto my list of really cool inventions! 8-Track cartridges were originally developed for radio, but were picked up by Ford Motor Company and during the ‘60s became a fundamental part of car culture. These cartridges were the children of reel-to-reel and were the first tapes to use a continuous loop, making it a far more consumer-friendly product than the bulky reel-to-reel of the past.

OK, so, not an invention: in 1965, the Beatles played the biggest gig to date at New York’s Shea Stadium. Obviously, they weren’t thinking about the sound quality – who does?! – but this event paved the way for the 1970s takeover of large musical events and the development of the technology we use today. It was a turning point for live music, and one that should never be forgotten.

1975: Switch Mode Power Supplies

I really don’t like to use acronyms very often, but OMFG, SMPS is the best thing to ever happen to mankind. For those of you who look like you’ve just got out the bath even though you’ve been at work for hours, you’ll remember trying to make sure you were busy when the amp racks needed listing into the venue. My word they were heavy. Unfortunately, for me this was the mid 1990s and the switch-mode power supply was birthed in 1975-ish… So it either took the audio industry a long time to catch up or my old guv’nor was a bit tight…

In 1982, Sony’s compact disc revolutionised the ‘80s. The CD has always been seen by many as a consumer product and that real audiophiles would always listen to vinyl. The CD solved a few of the problems that consumers had with vinyl, one being the excessive hiss, pops and crackles, the other being the ability to extend to lower frequencies. With vinyl, there was always a limitation with how low you are able to go because of physical space on the discs surface; with CD, this wasn’t a problem. The only problem was trying to stop the laser from jumping at high volumes.

Maybe the tail of the CD isn’t just about a revolution in the consumption of music, but a pantheon of achievement between two companies. We’ve seen many times before formats fail because they didn’t have the right backer, even though they were better…

We mustn’t forget that all these inventions, theorems and events, as ground-breaking as they were, were built using collective knowledge and thousands of hours of mistake-making. Working together to build a better future isn’t a journey for individuals but journeys we are all part of. We are all architects of audio.

Pictures: Top: Inside the 1952-invented 8-Track cartridge. Second: Thomas Alva Edison showed us how we could listen to sound with his phonograph.

Published late in 2016 and sponsored by QSC Audio, Genius!2is the second edition of Genius!, celebrating those clever people whose inventions have transformed the world of professional audio. The 30-page supplement is also available to read in a handy digital-edition form