- Three people claim to have independently invented the world’s first microphone: Emile Berliner, David Edward Hughes, and Thomas Edison.
- A Supreme Court ruling in 1892 declared Thomas Edison as the inventor of the carbon microphone.
- Lord Kelvin criticized Edison for his unfounded attacks and stated that all discoveries build upon the work of others.
- The first types of microphones included acoustic megaphones, the lovers’ telephone, dynamic microphones, the Reis telephone, and the liquid transmitter.
It seems the answer to who invented the world’s first microphone would have two words: a first name and a last name. However, as often happens in engineering and discovery, three people claim the microphone as their independent invention. And it took a Supreme Court ruling to settle the dust.
Keep reading to see if we can uncover the truth behind who invented the world’s first microphone and when it actually happened.
Who Filed the First Microphone Patent?
Emile Berliner filed an 1877 carbon microphone patent. However, England’s David Edward Hughes and fellow American Thomas Edison also “invented” the carbon microphone around the same time.
It’s essential to recognize the significance of the invention at the time. Alexander Bell had recently invented the telephone. And, recognizing the immensity of Berliner’s discovery, Bell purchased the patent for $50,000, an astronomical amount for the time and over a million dollars today.
But since Thomas Edison also filed for a patent, the two men fought a fifteen-year legal battle for patent ownership. Berliner had demonstrated his discovery a year before filing, so he claimed Edison stole his ideas.
While Edison and Berliner battled it out in the U.S., Edison believed that a friend of David Edward Hughes stole his work and passed it along.
Were Fists Ever Thrown Over Who Invented the World’s First Microphone?
We don’t know if the three men ever went to fisticuffs. But their heated exchanges played out on the world stage through Edison lashing out in the press at both Hughes and the supposed Pilcher.
He charged both men with plagiarism, piracy, and the abuse of confidence. Both private and public letters of accusation and rebuttal flew between the three men.
How Did Lord Kelvin Get Involved?
After months of charges flying back and forth, Lord Kelvin stepped in to review and decree his thoughts on the sordid situation.
He wrote to the New York Daily Tribune in a 1978 no-holding-back letter. He started by saying the microphone is a “beautiful discovery and invention.” But then he went on to say the invention’s pleasure was marred by public accusations of bad faith amid personal claims of priority.
The physicist went on to chastise Edison for his unfounded and violent attacks. He then suggested Edison would surely see his errors and not rest until he apologized. However, Edison didn’t ever apologize, even though many people believe Hughes actually independently invented the microphone.
In his letter, Lord Kelvin reminded readers of two important details. Edison and Hughes used a physical principle discovered by Clérac, a Frenchman. Furthermore, Clérac’s principle was based on another Frenchman’s discovery.
The theme is that all discoveries have their bases in the work of another engineer or scientist. And it is the constant building upon one another that allows for monumental breakthroughs, such as the microphone.
Supreme Court Ruling: Who Invented the World’s First Microphone?
Back in the U.S., the Supreme Court finally made an 1892 ruling that the invention of the carbon microphone belonged to Thomas Edison.
Berliner, however, went to his grave in 1929 still believing that Edison stole his invention. So, the true inventor may never be known entirely. But it seems safe to say that the plethora of discoveries during that time changed the world as people knew it.
The First Types of Microphones
Here’s a quick timeline of the microphone’s first iterations.
The earliest way that large crowds heard a speaker was through acoustic megaphones or speaking tubes. There are fifth-century-BC examples from Greece of theater masks having horn-shaped openings to amplify actors’ voices inside amphitheaters.
The Lovers’ Telephone
Much later, in 1665, Robert Hooke discovered that you could stretch wire between two cups to speak to another person. With its nickname, the lovers’ telephone, this simple device still delights children. Do you remember stretching tin cans between a string to see if your sibling or friend could hear your words?
Antonio Meucci created a dynamic microphone in 1856. He did it by moving a wire coil to varying depths within a magnetic field to generate electricity. Telephone technology used this microphone method in its beginnings.
Germany’s Johann Philipp Reis built the Reis telephone in 1861. It transmitted sound by attaching a metallic strip to a vibrating membrane, thereby producing intermittent current.
Alexander Graham Bell and Elisha Gray built on Reis’ development and created a liquid transmitter in 1876. They attached a diaphragm to a conductive rod within an acid solution. Thus, the “liquid” transmitter.
The sound quality was poor, but each successive development got the inventors closer to a good product. So, you can see that answering the question, “Who invented the world’s first microphone?” is quite complicated.
The year after Bell and Gray developed the liquid transmitter and telephone, Emile Berliner improved their design. He added a stretched metal diaphragm and an adjacent steel ball in 1877. And then, Berliner proceeded to demonstrate his invention before submitting a patent application.
David Edward Hughes also got credit for the first carbon microphone in 1878. Thomas Edison joined the fray around the same time, as well.
Many scientists believe Hughes was the actual inventor. His design consisted of metal electrodes with a suspended carbon rod between them. He also may have been the first person to coin the word “microphone.”
We do know that regardless of the rift between the three inventors, Edison did go on to refine the carbon microphone. In 1886, he developed a carbon-button transmitter style of microphone. It was used for a radio broadcast in 1910 from New York’s Metropolitan Opera House.
As is often the case in engineering and invention, technology continued improving to the point that three men realized the next step in transmitting audio. While Berliner may have demonstrated his technology first, Edison and Hughes also reached similar conclusions about how best to create a microphone.
In today’s world, we can only imagine how each of the three inventors would marvel at the progress of technology. Can you picture Thomas Edison with a smartphone? He would likely feel stunned at the power of such a tiny device. (Not to mention his surprise at the current popularity of Edison light bulbs.)
No matter who actually invented the world’s first microphone, the work of Berliner, Edison, and Hughes paved the way for today’s increasing technology. So, in this battle of three outstanding inventors, we end by lifting our hats in gratitude for each of their contributions to science.
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