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Post by Archived Topic » Fri Jul 02, 2004 6:29 pm

A discussion under the posting GOOD VIBRATIONS (#3208) , as these things sometimes do, led to thoughts about related (or even unrelated) topics. And we did end up discussing the history of ‘hi-fi.’ For purposes of retrievability, I am posting this discussion separately. Simon Beck who posted the original ‘vibrations’ question did point out in a reply that the word HI-FI had been around before the advent of STEREO, which I had mentioned is generally regarded as marking the beginning of what is thought of as modern ‘hi-fi.’ What constitutes high fidelity is a relative term, though, and using the beginning of the availability of stereo (1957-58), is an arbitrary demarcation point influenced by our modern point of view. Back then a good mono setup might definitely have been considered and called HI-FI. And Random House Unabridged Dictionary does date first use in print for HI-FI as 1945-50. Actually, when my parents purchased a flashy high-quality Grundig which included AM/FM radio with VHF and push button tuning and a turntable, back in the early 1950s (which was definitely mono), it was very likely (I just can’t remember) that we could have referred to it as HI-FI. However, just around the same time we also got a Grundig stereo tape recorder and I can’t recall if we made a distinction between the -FI of one and the -FI of the other, but I don’t think we did.

Ken G (Fort Collins, CO, USA) – 8/28/02



However, Chapman’s Dictionary of American Slang says:

LOW-FI or LO FI: 1.noun or noun phrase: by 1950s, Record- or tape-playing or other equipment that reproduces sound rather badly 2. adjective: ‘a room full of low-fi components’ [base on hi-fi]

Random House Unabridged (just checking this to see if dates jibe)

HI-FI 1. noun – high fidelity 2. noun – a phonograph, radio, or other sound-reproducing apparatus possessing high-fidelity 3. adjective – of, pertaining, or characteristic of such apparatus; high-fidelity [American, 1945-50]

Ken G (Fort Collins, CO, USA) – 8/26/02

British musical humorists Flanders and Swann wrote a "Song of Reproduction" in the 1950s, beginning (to the tune of "Hi-Fiddle-Dee-Dee, An Actor's Life For Me"):

"High Fidelity

Hi-Fi's the thing for me!

With an LP Disc and an FM Set

And a Corner Reflex

Clearly this was pre-stereo.

Simon Beck
London, UK

[[POST-POSTING NOTE: The show this song was from ‘At the Drop of a Hat’ opened in London on New Year’s Eve of 1956. Consumer stereo tape recorders went on the market in 1949 (see below) but stereo vinyl didn’t hit until 1958 (see below) and commercial stereo broadcasting didn’t start until 1961 (see below). So, in this song it looks like you are right and although the time frame isn’t pre-stereo, the set-up referred to is – he just has an FM set and a turntable for the mono LPs and a Corner Reflex (not familiar with the term but assuming it is a single non-stereo speaker box) he is calling it ‘Hi-F.’ (Ken G – 8/28/02]]


Simon, I’ve put together this chronology of the development of sound reproduction and hi-fi. I hope you find it as interesting reading as I did writing. Can’t vouch for total accuracy of sources because I was just scrounging around cutting, pasting, and paraphrasing. So, as with Garrison Keillor’s Powdermilk Biscuits, it’s 100% pure – mostly!

High fidelity means a high level of similitude to the real thing (directionality, fidelity over a wide range of frequencies, and little distortion). This is a relative term, but it has come to mean, first and perhaps foremost, that it must be stereo (and the more the better). Thus, the birth of hi-fi for the masses is generally regarded as being about 1957-58 when stereo equipment first became readily available. Of course, by that time all the other components necessary for high fidelity, including such things as good amplifiers, speakers, needles and cartridges, etc. had already been invented. And with the coming of the digital revolution, hi-fi has reached even a higher level of - ‘FI’

Below I have recorded in chronological order those events which were important in the development of hi-fi ( including radio):

1872: Physicist Maxwell theorizes that ELECTROMAGNETIC WAVES exist.

1877: Edison invents FIRST SOUND REPRODUCTION DEVICE, the hand-cranked phonograph using a tin foil covered wax cylinder

1879: Edison designs FIRST PRACTICAL DYNAMO for generation of electricity (direct current DC could only be transmitted about 2 miles max)

1882: Edison’s Pearl St. Station in NYC begins providing ELECTRIC DC POWER and Edison's incandescent bulbs light up lower Manhattan

1883: Edison patents the ‘EDISON EFFECT.’ Is BASIS FOR VACUUM TUBE and, in fact, every piece of electronics invented in the next 65 years

1888: GRAMOPHONE invented by Berliner for recording/manufacturing (using masters) the FLAT RECORD (but not commercialization)

1888: Alternating current AC GENERATORS, MOTORS, and the TRANSFORMER (needed for practical power transmission) invented by Tesla


1893: Poulson invents magnetized steel cable to create WIRE RECORDING, the predominant audio recording technology for the next 40 years

1900: Fessenden sends FIRST WIRELESS TRANSMISSION OF HUMAN VOICE (preceded Marconi – but never achieved the recognition and fame)

1901: Marconi invents means of TRANSMITTING WIRELESS SIGNALS and sends the Morse Code letter ‘S’ across the Atlantic

1902: Fessenden discovers HETERODYNE PRINCIPLE (converting high-freq. radio signals to lower freq.) – critical for commercial broadcasting

1904: Fessenden finds how to superimpose sound on a radio wave and invents ‘AMPLITUDE MODULATION’ – AM radio

1904: Fleming invents VACUUM TUBE, first electronic rectifier of radio waves – converts radio signals into direct currents detectable by receiver.

1906: De Forest invents the VACUUM TUBE AMPLIFIER

1906: Fessenden TRANSMITS FIRST RADIO PROGRAM featuring him playing his violin, and singing Christmas carols – heard 100s of miles away

1907: Gramophone commercialized as THE VICTROLA – music now available to the masses.

1910-15: The WORD RADIO comes into vogue as a shortening of radiotelegraph or radiotelegraphy

1912: deForest invents the AUDION TUBE, the essential component in what would become known as the radio.

1915: Jensen invents the AMPLIFYING SPEAKER (called Magnavox – great voice) and early ‘high fidelity’ in radio is born

1918: Armstrong, based on Fessenden’s heterodyne, invents SUPERHETERODYNE radio receiver – principle behind every radio device made today.

1920: Radio amateur, Conrad, starts evening music broadcasts and boss, Westinghouse, sets up FIRST COMMERCIAL RADIO STATION (Pittsburg)

1922: FM (frequency modulated) RADIO THEORIZED by American mathematician Carson – but 20 years before commercial FM station appears

1923: FIRST BOOMBOX – radio with built-in speakers (not headphones), simplified tuning, battery (since many homes had no electricity), and handle

1925 (about): GRAMOPHONE ELECTRIFIED and goes from mechanical crank to electric motor

1927: AC HOUSE CURRENT rather than batteries now POWERS MOST RADIOS

1929: The Motorola ( ‘motor’ Victrola) is unveiled – FIRST PRACTICAL CAR RADIO (invented by Lear of Lear Jet fame, who sold the rights in 1924)

1931: EMI researcher Alan Dower Blumlein invents FIRST STEREO (stereophonic) sound RECORDING

1931: RCA demonstrates the FIRST LP RECORD

1932-35: FIRST MAGNETIC TAPE RECORDER developed in Germany – unbeknownst to western engineers Hitler is recording/broadcasting speeches


1939: Camras of Armour Research INVENTS U.S. WIRE RECORDER that was used by the military throughout World War II.

1941: Armstrong (superheterodyne inventor) launches the first COMMERCIAL FM RADIO STATION at Columbia University in New York City

1946: Mullin (US engineer), poking through Third Reich ruins discovers and REBUILDS the GERMAN Magnetphon TAPE RECORDER for U.S. to see

1947: TRANSISTOR PROPOSED by Shockley in 1939 to replace the vacuum tube, is perfected by him – beginning the age of miniaturization

1947: 3M begins manufacturing reels of Scotch 100 magnetic tape which launches the recording tape industry in the United States

1948: FIRST U.S. HIGH-FIDELITY STEREO TAPE Recorder produced by Ampex with Mullin’s help

1948: 33-RPM long-playing (LP) vinyl RECORD INVENTED by physicist Goldmark bringing higher (but not quite hi-fi) fidelity to the record industry

1948: SAPPHIRE-TIPPED CARTRIDGE introduced by GE – replaces old mostly steel or osmium needles and allowing vinyl higher-fi sound to be heard

1949: RCA introduces the FIRST 45-RPM DISC

1949: FIRST CONSUMER STEREO TAPE RECORDER/PLAYER, the Magnecord, introduced, providing real hi-fi quality – vinyl not quite there yet



1958: FIRST HI-FI STEREO VINYL RECORDS produced by London Records, but years before stereo becomes standard (mid-60s Beatle releases still mono)

1958: The BBC begins REGULAR STEREO BROADCASTS Saturday mornings

1958: Schawlow and Townes outline their IDEAS FOR BUILDING A LASER (which Einstein in 1917 had suggested was theoretically possible)

1959: FIRST MICROCHIP PATENTS to Kilby of Texas Instruments and Noyce (Intel founder) of Fairchild Semiconductor (both considered co-inventors)

1961: First commercial radio station begins FULL-TIME FM STEREO BROADCASTING

1963: Philips Electronics develops THE AUDIOCASSETTE – later 4-track and 8-track will come on the scene

1967: Dolby (who earlier helped invent video recording) INVENTS NOISE REDUCTION SCHEME to get the hiss out of tape

1982: COMPACT DISC introduced to public – Sony, Philips, and PolyGram collaborate to produce the new digital binary encoded laser technology

Ken G (Fort Collins, CO, USA) – 8/27/02


Excellent chronology! Thanks! According to my father, hi-fi as a hobby in the UK did pre-date general availability of stereo recordings by a number of years, and many enthusiasts would have a SINGLE huge corner-reflex speaker (often made of bricks!) in their listening den.

Simon Beck

London, UK

On a different musical theme, check my websites:

Submitted by Ken Greenwald (Fort Collins, CO - U.S.A.)
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