A version of this article previously appeared in Forbes.
I recently enjoyed John Covach’s History Of Rock Coursera course. In an early lecture, he explains how the Nazis’ desire to protect Hitler from assassination led to the invention of recording technology that was ultimately used by musicians to create multi-track recordings, such as the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
This story of technology diffusion is illustrative of the Hummingbird Effect, in which a technological innovation results in unintended, non-obvious outcomes. Entrepreneurs who study historical Hummingbird Effects are better positioned to anticipate the unintended, non-obvious consequences spawned by today’s technologies.
An AC Sonic Breakthrough
The first magnetic recordings were made by American inventor Oberlin Smith in 1878. However, the magnetism that captured the sound also caused the playback of the recordings to be distorted and of a low fidelity.
During the late 1930’s, increasing the fidelity of such magnetic recordings was given a high priority by the Nazis, as they believed that the Allies had developed technology by which they could pinpoint the source of a particular radio broadcast.
This unfounded fear (no such technology existed) put a major cramp in Adolph Hitler’s ability to broadcast his propaganda rants. Nazi officials did not want to broadcast low-fidelity copies of Hitlers’ speeches, as they wanted the German people believe that their fearful leader was speaking to them live.
The solution was the introduction of AC bias during the recording process, which resulted in a sonic quality that, when broadcast over the airwaves, made the recordings indistinguishable from a live diatribe. The recordings also had the added benefit of allowing the broadcasts to be delivered during prime evening hours, irrespective of the local time zone. It was this time-delay aspect of the technology that later enticed Bing Crosby to record his radio shows for later broadcast.
To The Victors Go The Technology
After Germany’s surrender, an American soldier, Jack Mullin confiscated two state-of-the art tape recorders from a Frankfurt radio station and sent them to his home in California. The intellectual property rights associated with the German technology were nullified after the war, thereby allowing Mr. Mullin to add his own innovations without regard to international patent laws.
After a couple of years of reverse engineering, tinkering and modifying the machines, Mr. Mullin dramatically demonstrated his reel-to-reel recorder in June, 1947. He gathered Hollywood executives into a theater. On the stage was a band and one of his tape recorders.
He then repeatedly opened and shut the curtain, asking the executives each time if they could tell the difference between the band playing live and the machine playing previously recorded music. The executives could not distinguish which was which.
A member of the audience was an associate of Bing Crosby. In 1946, Mr. Crosby had pioneered the playback of radio shows by recording them on wax discs. His motivations were varied, but primary among them was his desire to avoid doing two live broadcasts of his shows each night (one for the East Coast and another for the Western US). Prior to 1946, radio shows were exclusively broadcast live.
Given his desire to break the paradigm of live radio broadcasts, Mr. Crosby became an Angel Investor in Mr. Mullin’s venture, investing $50,000 ($550,000 in 2017 dollars) into AMPEX. The company eventually went public and had a long, successful run, creating video, audio and computer storage innovations through the mid-1980’s.
The Gift Of An Octopus
In 1948, Bing hired one of the most innovative musical pioneers of his generation, Les Paul. Mr. Paul recorded Bing’s radio shows for future broadcast, using AMPEX recorders.
Les was the ideal choice for the job, as he had been at the forefront of innovative recording techniques, perfecting the solid-body electric guitar in 1941. In the late 1940’s, he began creating multi-layered recordings, using acetate records. For instance, recording rhythm guitar on an acetate record and then playing that record back, as he performed a guitar solo. In this way, he built some of the world’s first commercially released, multi-track performances.
In 1949, at Bing Crosby’s urging, Les converted his Hollywood garage into a recording studio. Bing then gave Les an AMPEX Sel-Sync device, which allowed the recording of eight tracks. Using his innovative equipment, Les went on to record several hits, while inventing recording techniques that would influence artists over the next four decades.
To put the degree of Les and Bing’s forward thinking into perspective, the Beatles recorded almost all of their music on two and four track consoles, including their groundbreaking album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. It wasn’t until 1969, when they recorded their final album, Abbey Road, that the Beatles caught up with Les and Bing and took advantage of eight track recording technology.
You can follow John on Twitter: @johngreathouse.
Image credit: Michael Aleo