10 March 2009
The invention: Self-contained system making it possible to record and repeatedly play back sound without having to thread tape through a machine. The person behind the invention: Fritz Pfleumer, a German engineer whose work on audiotapes paved the way for audiocassette production Smaller Is Better The introduction of magnetic audio recording tape in 1929 was met with great enthusiasm, particularly in the entertainment industry, and specifically among radio broadcasters. Although somewhat practical methods for recording and storing sound for later playback had been around for some time, audiotape was much easier to use, store, and edit, and much less expensive to produce. It was Fritz Pfleumer, a German engineer, who in 1929 filed the first audiotape patent. His detailed specifications indicated that tape could be made by bonding a thin coating of oxide to strips of either paper or film. Pfleumer also suggested that audiotape could be attached to filmstrips to provide higher-quality sound than was available with the film sound technologies in use at that time. In 1935, the German electronics firm AEG produced a reliable prototype of a record-playback machine based on Pfleumer’s idea. By 1947, the American company 3M had refined the concept to the point where it was able to produce a high-quality tape using a plastic- based backing and red oxide. The tape recorded and reproduced sound with a high degree of clarity and dynamic range and would soon become the standard in the industry. Still, the tape was sold and used in a somewhat inconvenient open-reel format. The user had to thread it through a machine and onto a take-up reel. This process was somewhat cumbersome and complicated for the layperson. For many years, sound-recording technology remained a tool mostly for professionals. In 1963, the first audiocassette was introduced by the Netherlands-based PhilipsNVcompany. This device could be inserted into a machine without threading. Rewind and fast-forward were faster, and it made no difference where the tape was stopped prior to the ejection of the cassette. By contrast, open-reel audiotape required that the tape be wound fully onto one or the other of the two reels before it could be taken off the machine. Technical advances allowed the cassette tape to be much narrower than the tape used in open reels and also allowed the tape speed to be reduced without sacrificing sound quality. Thus, the cassette was easier to carry around, and more sound could be recorded on a cassette tape. In addition, the enclosed cassette decreased wear and tear on the tape and protected it from contamination. Creating a Market One of the most popular uses for audiocassettes was to record music from radios and other audio sources for later playback. During the 1970’s, many radio stations developed “all music” formats in which entire albums were often played without interruption. That gave listeners an opportunity to record the music for later playback. At first, the music recording industry complained about this practice, charging that unauthorized recording of music from the radio was a violation of copyright laws. Eventually, the issue died down as the same companies began to recognize this new, untapped market for recorded music on cassette. Audiocassettes, all based on the original Philips design, were being manufactured by more than sixty companies within only a few years of their introduction. In addition, spin-offs of that design were being used in many specialized applications, including dictation, storage of computer information, and surveillance. The emergence of videotape resulted in a number of formats for recording and playing back video based on the same principle. Although each is characterized by different widths of tape, each uses the same technique for tape storage and transport. The cassette has remained a popular means of storing and retrieving information on magnetic tape for more than a quarter of a century. During the early 1990’s, digital technologies such as audio CDs (compact discs) and the more advanced CD-ROM (compact discs that reproduce sound, text, and images via computer) were beginning to store information in revolutionary new ways. With the development of this increasingly sophisticated technology, need for the audiocassette, once the most versatile, reliable, portable, and economical means of recording, storing, and playing-back sound, became more limited. Consequences The cassette represented a new level of convenience for the audiophile, resulting in a significant increase in the use of recording technology in all walks of life. Even small children could operate cassette recorders and players, which led to their use in schools for a variety of instructional tasks and in the home for entertainment. The recording industry realized that audiotape cassettes would allow consumers to listen to recorded music in places where record players were impractical: in automobiles, at the beach, even while camping. The industry also saw the need for widespread availability of music and information on cassette tape. It soon began distributing albums on audiocassette in addition to the long-play vinyl discs, and recording sales increased substantially. This new technology put recorded music into automobiles for the first time, again resulting in a surge in sales for recorded music. Eventually, information, including language instruction and books-on-tape, became popular commuter fare. With the invention of the microchip, audiotape players became available in smaller and smaller sizes, making them truly portable. Audiocassettes underwent another explosion in popularity during the early 1980’s, when the Sony Corporation introduced the Walkman, an extremely compact, almost weightless cassette player that could be attached to clothing and used with lightweight earphones virtually anywhere. At the same time, cassettes were suddenly being used with microcomputers for backing up magnetic data files. Home video soon exploded onto the scene, bringing with it new applications for cassettes. As had happened with audiotape, video camera-recorder units, called “camcorders,” were miniaturized to the point where 8-millimeter videocassettes capable of recording up to 90 minutes of live action and sound were widely available. These cassettes closely resembled the audiocassette first introduced in 1963.