Looking Back at the History of Loudspeakers

In today’s world, we often take for granted the production of live sound, and specifically the quality with which it is delivered. Little do we understand that the history of Live Sound and speaker systems is long and complicated. As soon as you start looking into it, you will realize that depending on the source that you choose, the history of sound, and specifically loud speakers is dependent on whose side of the story you believe. While this is often the case with many parts of history, in the case of technology, we have the advantage of being able to physically see when certain pieces of equipment were first made, irrelevant of who holds the patent.

At First We Heard Voice

The basis for much of the loud speaker technology that we take for granted today is actually rooted in the invention of the telephone. While the history books more commonly refer to Alexander Graham Bell as the first to patent the loudspeaker as part of his first telephone in 1876, the first recorded speaker was actually created by Johann Philipp Reis in 1861, a full fifteen years prior to Bell’s patent. While this may not seem like too long on the scale of things, think about the advances we now take for granted that have only really been around for the last fifteen years. Take your cellular phone as an example; how much have they changed in the last decade and a half? That is definitely some food for thought.

The speaker was actually also part of a design for a telephone, but was never patented. Reis’s design was the first speaker to be able to clearly recreate the sound of another person’s voice once the signal had been carried long distance by cables. Irrelevant of who took technology from whom, the seed had been planted, and for the next few decades, advances in speaker technology was made in leaps and bounds, and all of this before music was even conceived as being converted to an electrical signal for future listening.

Adding Sound to Pictures

If we take the date of 1861 as a starting point, it would be a full 76 years until a speaker system was patented and used in movie theaters as part of a movie presentation. The first such instance was called ‘The Shearer Horn’, and was introduced by Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer in 1937. It seems almost unbelievable that it took so long to refine a good loudspeaker design, and there where many attempts, but also to create the technology to record and replay live music.
The system was still not perfect though, volume levels where extremely low and the quality of sound was reduce significantly when a range of frequencies where played back. This is something that certain speaker systems of today still suffer with, and we have 74 years of further research and technology under our belts.
In 1943 a company by the name of Altec Lansing introduced what was to become one of their most renowned speakers ever.

Simply called the ‘604’, the speaker was a coaxial duplex driver, the likes of which had never been seen. It took technology from both loudspeakers of the time and sound horns still commonly used on items such as gramophones, and combined them into a speaker system that was capable of producing clear and rich sounding tones at both ends of the scale. The simplicity of the design was what made it such an amazing piece of equipment.
The outside of the speaker cone was used to produce low end tones, while the center of the cone contained a smaller cone, which used pulses from a sound horn to produce the higher notes.

While the design may sound fairly archaic by today’s standards, the ‘604’ is basically the grand parent of today’s speaker technology. The design has been emulated and improved to such a degree that now we can enjoy crystal clear playback of our favorite music from a speaker the size of a penny, all the way up to the massive speaker stacks you often see at live events. PA and Live Sound Systems have also become extremely cost effective as technology becomes cheaper to reproduce. And to think that the live sound of music we enjoy today all came from the design of what now seems like a simple telephone!

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Loudspeaker History