This Day in Tech History

On This Day . . .

Nipper and Carbon Mics


January 17, 1882: Edison Patents Carbon Microphone

Before the proliferation of vacuum tube amplifiers in the 1920s, carbon microphones were the only practical means of obtaining high-level audio signals and were widely used in the developing telephone systems. They were cheap and had a pretty good frequency response well suited for this application.  As a matter of fact, their use in telephones continued up to the 1980’s.



Although Edison Patented his carbon mic on this day, he didn’t really invent it. Nope, that honor goes to Emile Berliner who invented the first microphone in 1876 and also got a patent for it.



Let’s not forget David Hughes who also invented and coined the word microphone in the early 1870’s but decided not to patient his invention but give it as a gift to the world.

The carbon was in between two cups and attached to the mouthpiece. The diaphragm would change pressure, causing the carbon to be pushed upon. That would send electric current to the other end, which would transpose it back to audio.

Berliner with his early microphones

Berliner with his early microphones

Carbon microphones were widely used in early AM radio broadcasting systems (usually modified telephone electret-microphonemicrophones), but their limited frequency response, as well as a fairly high noise level, led to their abandonment for that use by the late 1920s. They continued to be widely used for low-end public address, and military and amateur radio applications for some decades afterward.



Shure 104

Carbon microphones are still used today in certain niche applications. An example is the Shure 104c, which is still in demand because of its wide compatibility with existing equipment.

After protracted patent litigation, in 1892 a federal court ruled that Edison, and not Emile Berliner, was the inventor of the carbon microphone.

In truth, neither can claim total credit.

A Bell executive, W. Van Benthuysen, told The New York Times in December 1891, that the idea of transmitting speech by varying the current between two contacts appeared in published works as early as 1854, well before either Berliner or Edison claimed credit for the idea in 1877.

Berlinger’s Legacy

Berlinger also patented the gramophone, predecessor to the phonograph. But Berliner’s legacy lived on in his trademark, a picture of a dog listening to his master’s voice being played from a gramophone. The dog’s name was Nipper.

nip_photoNipper is perhaps one of the best-known and most loved advertising trademarks. We know him as the “RCA dog”, but he started life in Bristol, England in 1884. He was a mutt, part bull terrier and a trace of fox terrier.

When his master died he became the pet of struggling artist and photographer, Francis

Barraud at his easel

Barraud at his easel

Barraud. At Barraud’s studio, Nipper would listen attentively to the old phonograph. One day it occurred to Barraud that the dog might be waiting to hear his master’s voice. This inspired him to paint the oil (1895) of Nipper and the gramophone, which is titled appropriately “His Master’s Voice.”

Barraud was not satisfied with the painting because he thought it was too dark. He decided to visit the Gramophone Co. in London to borrow a brass horn to brighten up the painting. Since he was there he asked William Owen if the company would be interested in the painting (he had brought along a photograph). They were indeed interested, but only if Barraud would agree to replace the Edison-Bell cylinder phonograph in his original painting with the company’s new disc gramophone.

Nipper with the Gramophone

Nipper with the Gramophone

It was first used as a trademark in 1900 in England and was called “Dog and Trumpet.” In May 1900, Emile Berliner visited the company and so admired the painting that when he returned to the United States he registered the trademark in the US and Canada and used the image for the new company he founded, the Victor Talking Machine company.

Nipper with the Edison-Bell Cylinder phonograph

Nipper with the Edison-Bell Cylinder phonograph

The image is still used today with HMV, formally EMI, formerly The Gramophone Company.

HMV – His Masters Voice hmv_logo_copy1

Make your own carbon microphone


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