Category Archives: nostalgia

The Rise of Tape Recording



Bing Crosby played a key financial role in the rise of tape recording because he wanted to spend more time playing golf.

From David Byrne’s book How Music Works, pp. 99-100:

Milner tells the curious story of the advent of recording tape—the next medium on which sound would be captured. The sequence of events that led to the adoption of tap is so accidental and convoluted that its invention and adoption were far from inevitable.

Just before WWII, Jack Mullin, an engineer from California, tried recording onto various mediums other than discs, but with limited fidelity or success. When he was stationed overseas during the war, he sometimes heard broadcasts of radio programs featuring German symphonies. Nothing unusual about that: lots of radio stations had their own orchestras that played live in large studios or theaters, and those performances were primarily broadcast live. The odd thing was, these “performances” were happening in the wee hours of the morning, and Mullin heard them when he was working late. So unless Hitler was commanding orchestras to perform in the middle of the night, Mullin’s only conclusion was that the Germans somehow had developed machines that could record orchestras with such fidelity that on playback they sounded live. 

Through a happy accident, Mullin ended up in Germany right after the end of the war, and someone said that those radio transmissions had come from a town near where they were stationed. Mullin went to look, and sure enough, there were a couple of tape machines that had been modified in such a way that their fidelity vastly improved on what any other existing technology could achieve. German technical innovations, like their rocket technology, were now free for the taking, so Mullin dismantled one of the machines and had the parts sent to his mother’s house in Mill valley. 

When he got back to California, he reassembled the machine, and in the process figured out what the Germans had done. Among other things, they had added a “bias tone” to the recordings—a frequency that you can’t hear but that somehow makes all the audible frequencies “stick” better. Mullin eventually put these machines to work, and he discovered that in addition to being a good recording medium, tape also opened up some unexpected possibilities. If a radio announcer flubbed a line, Mullin could edit out the mistake by splicing the tape. You couldn’t do anything like that on disc! If a comedian didn’t get the same laughs he got on his run-through, then, assuming the run through had been recorded, the laughter from that performance could be spliced into the “real” performance. The birth of the laugh track! Furthermore, laughs could be reused. “Canned” laughter could be added to any recorded program if the live audience didn’t yuk it up sufficiently.

The use of editing and splicing meant that a “recording” no longer necessarily represented a single performance, or at least it didn’t have to. The beginning of a song, for example, could be from one “take” and the end from a take done hours later. The broadcast version could even be the result of performances that had been done in many different places spliced together. The elements of a “performance” no longer had to be rooted in contiguous time or space. 

After seeing a presentation by Mullin of his tape recording device, Alexander Poniatoff formed a company, Ampex, to make more tape machines based on Mullin’s designs.  The banks, however, wouldn’t give Amex the loans they needed in order to get things up an running—constructing the early machines required considerable capital—so it looked bad for the future of tape-recording.

Around this time, Bing Crosby, the singer who had mastered an innovative use of microphones, was getting tired of having to do his very successful radio show live every day. Bing wanted to spend more time playing golf, but because his shows had to be done live, his time on the links was limited. Crosby realized that by using these new machines to record his shows, he could conceivably tape a couple of shows in one day and then play golf while the shows were being broadcast. No one would know the shows weren’t live. He asked ABC radio if they would agree to the plan, but when they saw Poniatoff’s “factory”—which was a complete shambles, with parts scattered all over—they said no way. So Crosby wrote a personal check to Ampex that guaranteed the machines would start getting built. They did, and after Crosby’s initial order, ABC soon ordered twenty more. The era of tape recording, and all the possibilities that went with it, was under way.

I read this passage in the light of what Charlie Stross said in his post “On the diminishing marginal utility of Stuff”

So why do the rich keep trying to acquire more money, long past the point at which it can make any noticeable difference to their lifestyle?

I have three answers. One: it becomes a habit. You don’t generally get to be hyper-rich without many years of continual effort; after a decade, just about anything becomes an ingrained habit. Two: it becomes a game, a way of keeping track of how well you’re doing at whatever it is you want to do. And three: you’re trying to build up a war chest that will buy you a very expensive toy—one that isn’t currently available at any price, so that if you want one you’ll have to sink billions of dollars and years of your own time into building it.

The latter is unusual but not unheard-of. Elon Musk has repeatedly explained that he wants to retire on Mars. That’s a not-available-at-any-price option right now, but he’s definitely serious about it; which is why he sank most of a gigantic fortune into building his own space program.

The Rise of Tape Recording
Sat, 06 Apr 2013 12:01:43 GMT


Industrial Policy – Creation and Value

Through out time, many economic activities that the market clearly chooses to value are still thought inferior to productive activity.  Usually some activity of physical production is what is felt to be really valuable.

I think we used to think of Agriculture this way, and still do to a degree.  Hell, I grew up on a farm and at some level I think food production is special.

But is it? 

I think not really. 

While when human could barely provide enough food to survive, food production is priority # 1, and other uses of time usually yield to it.  Now a few human produce more than enough food for all, in fact too much given our expanding girth as a nation.  Most of the rest of society is freed up to do other things.  Like manufacturing.  Soon a few human produce more than enough manufacturing for all.  More people are freed up for service work.   In both cases we seem to feel a physical product is the result of real work.

I thought Karl Smith had a nice piece on why that’s a fallacy.

When I taught econ 101, I would begin my semester with a discussion of auctions and the TV show “cash in the attic.” The idea was to first communicate that value doesn’t have to come from “creating” anything. It can come from rearranging the things we already have.

The items in an auction were always there but they were junk to one family and treasure to another. Rearranging the who had which item made the world a better place. This usually went over pretty well.


Creation and Value
Karl Smith
Wed, 13 Jul 2011 20:18:42 GMT

Our ambivalence about increasing amounts of production being non-tangible comes from nostalgia about the past to a degree.  It tends to be reflected in policy to support the old economic activity.  Farm subsidies seem to clearly exemplify that.  I wander to what degree will see similar support for smoke stack industries.  I think we already do to an extent.

The Good Old Days???

I’ve read the opening to Paul Krugman’s Conscious of a liberal.  I’m definitely less enthusiastic about a larger state than he, but that introduction resonated with me.  I also have the feeling that the country has gotten much more fractious and less friendly.

Jim Manzi of about the same age seem to agree.

Megan McArdle had an interesting counterpoint.

Megan McArdle

via The Good Old Days.

Jim Manzi and Paul Krugman are both nostalgic for childhoods that seemed safer, more egalitarian, less consumption-driven than the world today:

The safety and freedom that Krugman describe are rare now even for the wealthiest Americans – by age 9, I would typically leave the house on a Saturday morning on my bike, tell my parents I was "going out to play," and not return until dinner; at age 10, would go down to the ocean to swim with friends without supervision all day; and at age 11 would play flashlight tag across dozens of yards for hours after dark. And the sense of equality was real, too. Some people definitely had bigger houses and more things than others, but our lives were remarkably similar. We all went to the same schools together, played on the same teams together, and watched the same TV shows. The idea of having, or being, "help" seemed like something from old movies about another time.Almost anybody who experienced it this way (and of course, not everybody did), intuitively wants something like it for his own children. The tragedy, in my view, is that, though we all thought of this as the baseline of normality, this really was an exceptional moment in our nation’s history.

My motivation in writing about political economy is, in some ways, much like Krugman’s. But rather than seeing that moment as primarily the product of policies like unionization, entitlements and high taxes, as is Krugman’s view, I believe that it was primarily the product of circumstance. We had just won a global war, and had limited competition; we had a huge wave of immigration, followed by a multi-decade pause; oil was incredibly cheap; a backlog of technical developments had yet to be exploited and scaled up, and so forth. We can’t go back there, at least not exactly.

Maybe it’s because I grew up later than either Manzi or Krugman; maybe it’s because I grew up in Manhattan; or maybe it’s because I’m a woman.  Whatever the reason, what I notice about their idyll is how dependent it was on women being home.  Home production looks very similar no matter who is doing it; one family may be having meatloaf, and another filet mignon, but the family meals still have the same basic rhythm of Mom in the kitchen for hours until the family comes to dinner.  Families only need one car because Mom, who doesn’t herself work, is available to drive Dad to work every morning before she heads to the grocery store.  And the kids can play unsupervised because, of course, in this neighborhood–in all neighborhoods–there is a network of constantly watching eyes.  Meanwhile, the poor people and minorities are somewhere comfortably distant, allowing young Paul and Jim to experience a world without want. I can tell you where all the inequality and fear and crime was; it was in the neighborhood where I grew up, and the neighborhoods elsewhere in the city that were much poorer and more dangerous.

I don’t mean to sneer; I’m sure it was idyllic.  And the income gains of the 1950s and 1960s were real.  But the suburbs of the era were not created simply by the rise of the middle class.  Their existence, in the way that Manzi and Krugman remember, was also completely dependent on other forms of inequality: of the ability to move away from social problems, which is harder now; of generations of women whose sole destiny was the kitchen.  This produced a world in which most homes were, from the point of view of kids, basically the same: all of them contained a mom who spent most of her time cleaning the place or feeding its occupants, and the size and contents were naturally limited to the amount of stuff that Mom was personally willing to care for.  It was a great world for kids.  But not everyone was so lucky.
I find my self wanting to add that I think its consumer choice expanding and maybe the other edge of that sword.  Clearly we generally have more choice on many products today than 40 years ago.  Much of this is because of the globilization of the economy.  The spread of the internet and better communications as well.  Note the comment about watching the same TV shows.  Today how could that be true when the number of choices of what your friends could be doing is vastly greater than 40 years ago.  Numerous cable channels, the internet, video games all atomize and customize our activity to be different than what others are doing.  Think how common it was to talk about what Carson had said or joked 35 years ago.  Today no one has that size of audience in general.