Sound decisions: Systems, standards, and consumers in American audio technology, 1945--1975
My dissertation addresses the question of why certain audio technologies thrive and persist for decades while others fade rapidly by analyzing several episodes in the history of sound reproduction in twentieth century America. I examine the history of audio reproduction systems in American culture, highlighting the importance of standards and the role of consumers in the evolution of postwar home audio technology. Through a series of case studies, my dissertation examines competing audio technologies and the eventual rise of an overarching system of high fidelity, stereo sound reproduction. My work contributes to the growing literature on the social and cultural study of audio technologies, but diverges from other recent publications by treating audio technologies as consumer electronics systems. Drawing on recent work in economics, I emphasize the role of compatibility standards in the competition between systems. Indeed, for consumers, compatibility standards functionally define the limits of the system. Because consumers choose not simply between individual audio technologies, but between audio systems, considerations of technological hardware such as phonographs cannot be divorced from software decisions considerations concerning the content of recordings. Users play an active role in the evolution of consumer electronics systems, not only through consumption decisions but also by tinkering, assembling, and modifying products and putting technologies to novel uses. My dissertation uses tightly knit case studies not only to tell a narrative tale of consumer experience in postwar America, but also to analyze how technological gateways can alter the competitive landscape, how the highly particular preferences of expert consumer groups can disproportionately influence marketplace outcomes, and why technological momentum impedes some nascent systems more forcefully than others. My analysis of the bitter competition between Columbia's 33-rpm LP and RCA's 45-rpm disc in the 1940s and 1950s demonstrates how an inexpensive adaptor provided a technological "gateway" that united these otherwise incompatible systems, eliminating the pressure for consumers to select the "right" system or risk being stranded with an obsolete system. The establishment of a standardized, non-proprietary system of audio reproduction component parts in the late 1940s and early 1950s dramatically changed the relationship between producer and consumer in the audio industry. Standardized audio connections allowed users to select component parts from different manufacturers to create customized audio systems, effectively bestowing the consumer with the power of an audio reproduction engineer and system designer. Along with this system emerged a community of audio enthusiasts, called audiophiles, almost exclusively comprised of men with a passion for music and for the technology used to reproduce it. Audiophiles were expert consumers with strong preferences, and their demands helped shaped the history of American audio. Promoted by audiophiles and the audio and record industries, during the 1950s high fidelity was transformed from an obscure term used by a handful of audio engineers into a part of the American lexicon used by opportunistic advertisers to describe lipstick, mirrors, and even wine. Stereophonic sound slowly replaced monophonic sound as the standard for audio reproduction during the late 1950s through the 1960s. Although slow, its eventual triumph is impressive because of the difficulty in replacing a well-established system. Stereo's successor, quadraphonic sound, failed to gained widespread acceptance among consumers, partly because the industry never agreed on a single standard.
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|Authors:||Tang, Jeffrey Donald|
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