Friday, 20 March 2015

Sony and Scott de Martinville

A bit of mail the other day asked if I'd review something I'd bought: the subject line helpfully told me There’s still time to review your recent Argos purchase. Normally I'd've ignored it, but as it reminded me of an impulse buy that I'd regretted I followed the link thinking 'OK Argos, you asked for it' and ranted away.
After a sentence or two I noticed the warning Maximum review-length exceeded by 243 characters. How very dare they,  invite me to vent and then pull the rug out from under my... er... keyboard? So I gave them a couple of dismissive sentences, and stored my words of wisdom for future recycling.
It was hard to set up, because the ON/OFF switch was hidden away at the back. With the radio I was replacing the ON/OFF switch was at the front. This was convenient because switching off with this button was more graceful (in engineering terms); think of a Windows PC – it has to be shut down properly. Switching off my previous  DAB radio directly at the socket made an audible popping sound (increasing wear on the speakers). With a button on the front, switching off properly was easy.
But, as it happened, this radio did not have a graceful way of shutting down; the popping sound was equally loud whether I switched off at the wall or using the inconveniently placed ON/OFF switch. So I ignore the popping sound and switch off at the wall. People who know me personally will know how to interpret the word 'ignore'.

OK, what's bought is bought; Quod empsi empsi.

But this serves to introduce the theme of sound transmission technology. Recently I caught the end of a TV series that asked How we got to now with Steven Johnson and as his name was part of the title I assumed he was an expert. Perhaps so [definitely, it appears], but not in all things, in particular with respect to phononograms. [Oops – I misheard his accent; he gets it right, but with a confusingly trans-Atlantic twang.]

The phonautograph, a precursor of Edison's Earth-changing invention, is described here (about 9 minutes in). Johnson asks
Why has nobody heard of this guy? Because, unbelievably, Scott's design was missing one crucial feature: playback.
It could record, but not reproduce. This is strangely (inversely, in every way, including commercial success) like the Sony Walkman, which was based on an existing dictation machine, but with the recording facility neutered. (For all I know the technology was still there inside the box, but as it had no User Interface it might as well not have been. This cnet piece may tell you.)
This reminds me of a project I worked on in the late 1980s, which similarly involved taking an expensive bit of kit and bastardizing it – 'cost-reduced engineering' was the buzzword du jour.
So whereas Sony made a mint by taking a sound recorder and removing the ability to record sound  – a sound recorder that couldn't record     Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville made not a sou by inventing a machine that could record but couldn't play back.

Ho hum. I wanted to find a quote from one of  Eça de Queirós's Cartas de Inglaterra. Eça was a sort of 19th-century Alastair Cook, based in England, and writing home not to the UK but to Portugal.

Full details here
When he hears reports of Edison's 1877 invention, he imagines their primary use will  be in making 'living wills' – understandable really as (in the words of that Johnson TV programme)
For the 100,000 years since language developed, every word  ever spoken by anyone was immediately lost to the air.
And one of the video clips used to illustrate these words is a death-bed scene. Letting the dead speak was a major selling point of sound recording technology. But that quote will have to wait until after the concert I'm singing in on Saturday. Don't miss it.

Update: 2018.03.10.17:05 – Removed old footer.

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