Thursday, March 22, 2018

Tech revisionism and the myth of the killer app

I'm wondering if anyone else there occasionally has a "blogger moment." It is similar to a "senior moment," but it involves either thinking you posted something that you didn't or failing to remember you posted something that you did. I had one of these this morning when I went looking for what I'd written at the time about this egregious piece of tech revisionism by NPR's Laura Sydell.
Years later, an Edison assistant wrote: "We were sitting around. We'd been working on the telephone — yelling into diaphragms. And Edison turned to me, and he said, 'If we put a needle or a pin on this diaphragm, it'll vibrate, and if we pull a strip of wax paper underneath it, it should leave marks. And then if we pull that piece of paper back, we should hear the talking.' "

Yet, no one knew what to do with this invention. It took 20 years to figure out that music was the killer app.
Even a cursory check of the historic record would show that the ability to record and reproduce (since that's what we mean when we talk about "recording" technology) spoken words, music, etc. was instantly hailed as a major discovery, that people immediately saw the potential, particularly for music, and that there was from day one an enormous push by a wide range of inventors and engineers to get the technology commercially viable.

These illustrations from the October 12, 1889 issue of Scientific American illustrate the point.


  1. It might be a reference to the fact that Edison's company kept pushing sound recording as a business technology and ignored it as an entertainment technology. I'm probably wrong, but I gather that Edison did have some marketing problems with sound recording, but later did have a big place in the business recording market rather than the much larger entertainment market.

    1. Edison did have somewhat spotty instincts when it came to marketing and media (another reason why the Steve Jobs comparison is so silly) but the early phonographs really weren't very good for music. The impulse to initially market them for dictation and the spoken word wasn't that far out.

      Edison's bigger mistake might have been neglecting the home market:

      Beginning in 1885, prerecorded wax cylinders were marketed.[2] These have professionally made recordings of songs, instrumental music or humorous monologues in their grooves. At first, the only customers for them were proprietors of nickel-in-the-slot machines—the first juke boxes—installed in arcades and taverns, but within a few years private owners of phonographs were increasingly buying them for home use.


      They were made of a relatively soft wax formulation and would wear out after they were played a few dozen times.[8] The buyer could then use a mechanism which left their surfaces shaved smooth so new recordings could be made on them.