Electrical Recording

Orthacoustic radio recording record for NBC radio show "The Lone Ranger" that began as a live program in 1933 on WXYZ in Detroit; was briefly distributed on transcription disc, became the basis for a third network called Mutual., from Smithsonian NMAH
Vitaphone disc label. from AT&T exhibit "Dawn of Sound"
Victor record label with "VE" logo at top and bottom indicating that it was electrically recorded for the orthophonic, ca. 1926
RCA ad for Orthophonic Victrola without visible horn or speaker, from Literary Digest 1925/12/26
Orthophonic phonograph 1926, from Maxfield and Harrison
electromagnetic phono pickup for Orthophonic, from Maxfield and Harrison
1926 premier of Vitaphone feature film Don Juan, H-3x8 from AT&T Archives
1926 premier of Vitaphone feature film Don Juan, W4991 from AT&T Archives
cutting a master recording disc,86-300106 from AT&T Archives
cutting a master phonograph record,86-300166 from AT&T Archives
Stokowski recording a record, 86-300162 from AT&T Archives
Harrison & Norman H. Holland with dissasembled reproducer and tonearm, from AT&T Archives

The Orthophonic phonograph and sound motion pictures and public address systems were all products of the electrical recording revolution pioneered by Bell Labs. See Sound Recording Research at Bell Labs for the chronology of research 1915-1933. Henry C. Harrison at Bell Labs developed a matched-impedance recorder to improve the frequency range from the previous narrow 250-2,500 cycles range of acoustic recorders to a wider range of 50-6,000 cycles using the condenser microphone, tube amplifier, balanced-armature speaker, and a rubber-line acoustic recorder with a long tapered horn. It was this recording system that finally standardized recording speeds at 33-1/3 rpm for professional Vitaphone 16-inch discs, and 78 rpm for consumer 10 and 12-inch discs.

One of the earliest surviving electrical recordings is the Beethoven overture to Coriolanus by the New York Philharmonic conducted by Willem van Hoogstraten. This experimental recording was made Dec. 17, 1923, not released for commercial sale, but has been preserved and reproduced in the 10-CD collection New York Philharmonic -- The Historic Broadcasts 1923 to 1987. The Philharmonic the oldest surviving orchestra in America founded in 1842 and the first major orchestra to perform live on radio in 1922. The Philharmonic web site has a sound clip from this recording.

AT&T licensed its electrical recording system to the major record companies. According a note from George Blau, Columbia hired Art Gillham, "The Whispering Pianist," to make the first electrical recording February 25, 1925, which was commercially released as "You May Be Lonesome," Columbia 328-D. The Victor Talking Machine Co. made its first electrical recording on March 16, 1925 which was released as "Joan of Arkansas," Victor 19626. Victor made electrical recordings in April 1925 with the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Leopold Stokowski. The new system was introduced on "Victor Day" Nov. 2, 1925, by the Victor Company as the Orthophonic phonograph capable of playing back acoustically-produced and electrically-produced records. The basic model was mechanical only, powered by a hand crank as was the older Victrolas. It did not need electricity to run, but was designed to play back records recorded electrically in the studio and reproduce failthfully the full dynamic range of the new records in ways that a Victorola could not. The Orthophonic replaced the standard mica diaphragm of the Victrola with a new pleated aluminum diaphragm, the stylus assembly was mounted in ball bearings, and the horn was a folded exponential horn. The phonograph could also be combined with a radio in one cabinet, as described in the article "Orthophonic Radio Phonograph." In 1926 Victor introduced the Electrola model with an electric amplifier and loudspeaker. The Brunswick Panatrope player was made from the same RCA parts. In March 1927 Victor offered its first record changer called the Automatic Orthophonic for either 10 or 12-inch records. Even Edison began to use electrical recording in 1928 but his phonograph company went out of business in 1929 and most of these "laterals" were never released to the public.

Bell Labs used this same technology to develop two motion picture sound systems: sound-on-disc and sound-on-film. See the article Madam, Will You Talk? from the Bell Laboratories Record of 1946. The premier of "Don Juan" Aug. 16, 1926, was the first public use of the Vitaphone sound system.


1999-2000 by Steven E. Schoenherr. All rights reserved.
The photos on these pages are used with permission of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, Washigton DC, and AT&T Archives, Warren NJ. They may not be reproduced or distributed without written permission.

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