Category Archives: Science

The LP – Side Two

In 1889 two competing recording formats emerged, the all-wax cylinder, used in Edison’s “Perfected Phonograph” and the Gramophone, the world’s first record player, patented by German-born US inventor, Emile Berliner. Both formats were able to reproduce about two minutes’ worth of professionally made pre-recorded songs, instrumentals, and monologues, and while the Phonograph allowed the owner to record their own music too, the Gramophone was louder.

Cylinders played at 120 revolutions per minute (rpm), later increasing to 200 rpm to improve volume and squeeze in more material, whereas Berliner’s hand-cranked seven-inch records made from vulcanised rubber operated at a statelier speed, between sixty and 75 rpm.

Despite its fragility, the introduction of shellac, a resin derived from female lac beetles, which allowed more grooves to be cut into the record, started to swing the pendulum in the gramophone’s favour, cemented by the launch of the Red Seal label in 1903 featuring ten-inch shellac records playing at 78 rpm. It was a format that was to serve music lovers for almost five decades. Cylinders were quietly dropped from around 1912, although Edison supported them until 1929.

Flexible plastic discs made from Polyvinyl chloride (PVC or vinyl) were sent to radio broadcasters in the 1930s as they were more robust and produced better, more consistent sounds than shellac records, but they were not commercially available, the aftermath of the Great Depression dampening down the appetite amongst companies and consumers alike for technological innovation. However, a combination of a shortage of shellac after the Second World War and the development of the microgroove system in 1947 by Peter Goldmark and his team at Columbia Records set the stage for the next revolution in record production.

In 1948 the engineers at Columbia had developed a twelve-inch long-playing record, spinning at 33 and 1/3 rpm and holding about twenty-three minutes’ worth of music on each side. The first demonstration disc, ML4001, featured Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E minor played by the Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra of New York (now known as the New York Philharmonic) under the baton of Bruno Walter. 

Other early offerings included 12-inch discs featuring Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue and Greig’s Piano Concerto in A with Oscar Levant at the piano, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, favourites from Bizet’s Carmen, and ballet suites from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker and Khatchaturian’s Gayane. The collection was completed by two ten-inch records featuring a selection of Strauss waltzes and the music of Stephen Foster. Ten thousand of each of the albums were sent to Columbia’s distributors in readiness for the launch on June 21, 1948. The LP era had begun.

The Columbia Catalogue for 1949 waxed lyrical about its innovation, pointing out that their LP records played approximately six times more music than conventional shellac records allowing the listener to enjoy the world’s greatest music in one sitting, and that they were much more robust. “Each LP record”, it trilled, “consists of scores of microscopically fine grooves, precisely controlled channels capable of capturing the most subtle nuances or most magnificent fortissimi”. 

Columbia Records, though, did not have everything their own way, with RCA Victor introducing their own LP format shortly afterwards, just seven inches in diameter and revolving at 45 rpm. Over the next two years the companies battled it out in what was dubbed “The War of the Speeds”, but eventually the twelve-inch revolving at 33 and 1/3 rpm settled down to become the predominant format for albums and the seven-inch 45 rpm disc for singles and extended play records (EPs).

The advent of stereophonic recordings in the 1960s and the phasing out of mono sound in 1968 heralded the heyday of the vinyl, allowing contemporary musicians, arguably, to push the boundaries of musical creativity.

Vinyl might have been eclipsed by other formats, but its flame has been kept alive by many including Britain’s vinyl collecting community, of whom, a recent Royal Mint survey into collecting habits revealed, 32% live in Glasgow[1]. The format’s renaissance suggests that their faith was justified, and plans are underway, in the year that the vinyl LP celebrates its diamond anniversary, to hold the world’s first festival designed purely for vinyl enthusiasts in Haarlem in the Netherlands[2].

The vinyl revolution is not over.



The LP – Side One

Ever since the release in Japan of Billy Joel’s 52nd Street on October 1, 1982, the first commercially available compact disc (CD), vinyl records have been locked in an existential struggle. Digital formats might offer a cleaner listening experience, be more convenient to store, and well-nigh indestructible, but for many audiophiles a vinyl record feels more tangible and “alive” and is better at picking up the subtle nuances that are often lost or muddied in compressed digital recordings. For the romantic each hiss, crackle, and scratch on a vinyl record evokes a memory.

In a surprising but welcome turn of fortunes, the sales of vinyl in the UK in 2022 exceeded those of CDs for the first time since 1988, a revival fuelled in part because some major artists, such as Taylor Swift and Harry Styles, have deliberately chosen to record in that format. It is timely too as 2023 marks the seventy-fifth anniversary of the long-playing record (LP).

Inspired by some drawings of the human auditory system, French printer of scientific works, Edouard-Leon Scott, worked on a device designed to capture the human voice mechanically. He succeeded in 1853 by replacing the tympanum with an elastic membrane in the shape of a horn and the ossicle with a series of levers which moved a stylus backwards and forwards across a glass or paper surface blackened by smoke from an oil lamp.

Although Scott received a patent for his “phonautograph” on March 25, 1857, it was not a commercial success as the sound, rendered into a series of squiggles, could not be played back. It was not until 2008 when a team from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory succeeded in converting a phonautograph he had recorded on April 9, 1860, into a digital audio file that the true extent of his achievements was appreciated. Scott was heard singing, very slowly, a twenty-second snatch of Au clair de la Lune, predating Thomas Edison’s recording of Mary had a Little Lamb by some seventeen years.

Although Scott went to his grave convinced that Edison had wrested some of the glory that was rightfully his, the American inventor took the concept of voice recording forward by devising a system that played back sounds that had been recorded by transferring it to an embossing point and then, initially, on to paraffin paper and later a spinning cylinder wrapped in tin foil.

Scientific American, in its edition of December 22, 1877, reported that Edison had visited their office and “placed a little machine on our desk, turned a crank, and the machine enquired as to our health, asked how we liked the phonograph, informed us that it was very well, and bid us a cordial good night”. Edison’s patent (No 200,521), awarded on February 19, 1878, specified a particular method, embossing, for capturing sound on cylinders covered with tin foil. It was to prove to be his favourite invention.

The Sound Of The Northern Lights

The ominous red presence of the Northern Lights in the skies of continental Europe was seen as a harbinger of war. In the weeks before the French Revolution a bright red Aurora was seen over Scotland and England with reports of the sound of mighty battles being heard, intriguingly raising the question of whether the Northern Lights made a noise.

One who took the subject seriously was the first man to photograph them in October 1882, Danish astrophysicist, Sophus Tromhult, doubtless inspired by his father, Johan, who claimed to have heard them three times between 1838 and 1843. He likened their sound to the quiet but rapid rubbing together of two pieces of paper. Despite a career spent observing the lights, Sophus never heard them.

In the 1930s The Shetland News was inundated with reports, some contemporary, others historic, of sounds emanating from the Northern Lights. One such, published on May 20, 1933, from Peter Hutchison claimed that “on clear and frosty nights about thirty years ago the “pretty dancers”…would flit and fro, making a noise as if two planks had met flat ways – not a sharp crack but a dull sound, loud enough for anyone to hear. We boys got so used to this that we never heeded the noise when the pretty dancers came out to clap their hands”. These reports were corroborated by other witnesses in Canada and Norway.

Persistent reports of noises emanating from aurorae were discounted by the scientific community, the witnesses having no rigorous scientific training and the altitude at which they occurred being beyond the range of human hearing. This scepticism began to change when the eminent auroral scientist, Carl Størmer, published the experiences of two of his assistants who described hearing “a very curious faint whistling sound, distinctly undulatory, which seemed to follow exactly the vibrations of the aurora” and a sound like “burning grass or spray”.

A hundred years ago a paper published by Clarence Chant in The Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada[1] (September 1923) provided the now accepted explanation behind the sounds produced by aurorae, although there is still some debate as to how the mechanism that produces the sound operates. The motion of the Northern Lights, he argued, altered the Earth’s magnetic fields, inducing a change in the electrification of the atmosphere which, in turn, generated a crackling sound much closer to the Earth’s surface when it met objects on the ground, much like static. Chant’s theory lay neglected until the 1970s.

The chances of hearing an aurora were thought to be considerably lower than seeing one, some experts suggesting that the aural phenomenon only presents itself in five per cent of violent auroral displays. However, some recent research by Professor Emeritus Laine of Aalto University suggests that they might be more common than originally thought, citing a remarkable correlation between geomagnetic fluctuations and auroral sounds. Even more astonishingly he claims that that many of what he termed as possible auroral sounds occur even in the absence of visible Northern Lights, in other words that it is possible to hear them even if you cannot see them, and that absent a visual accompaniment the sounds made by the Northern Lights might easily be passed off as something more mundane.

To hear a version of them, check out a Radio 3 programme[2] in the Between The Ears series, first aired on Boxing Day, 2020, which remapped very low frequency radio recordings of aurorae to levels audible to the human ear. Although not quite the same as the real thing, it shows that the Northern Lights should be reclassified as one of nature’s finest Son et Lumiere shows.



The Northern Lights

Swirling rivers of greenish-blue light against a clear sky, dancing seemingly with a will of their own, sometimes almost static, the Northern Lights (Aurora borealis) are one of nature’s most spectacular displays. For all their beauty, though, they are the product of a violent event high above us, the clash of charged particles from the Sun with the Earth’s magnetic field. 

Solar winds send energised particles from the Sun’s surface, hitting the Earth’s upper atmosphere at speeds of around 45 million mph. Acting as a defensive shield, the Earth’s magnetic field forces the charged particles to move in spirals along the magnetic field lines towards its magnetic poles. Upon hitting the gas atoms and molecules in the Earth’s atmosphere, they transfer their energy which is transformed into photons.

The colour of the Northern Lights is dependent upon three factors at the time of the collision: the amount of energy held in the solar wind’s electrons, the type of gas atoms and molecules they collide into, and the altitude at which it occurs. A red light is produced when high-energy electrons interact with oxygen at an altitude in excess of 290 kilometres in the ionosphere while the more familiar green light is the result of the impact of low-energy electrons and oxygen at lower altitudes. A collision with nitrogen can produce a blue or red hue and other colours such as pink or purple are created when there is a mix of gases.

As the solar wind particles are funnelled towards the Earth’s magnetic poles, aurorae are most likely to be seen in a circular area around them, in the northern hemisphere, principally around the northern coast of Siberia, Scandinavia, Iceland, the southern tip of Greenland, northern Canada, and Alaska. When solar activity is particularly intense, as at the end of February 2023, they are visible much further south. The southern hemisphere has its own lights, the zone passing mostly over Antarctica and the Southern Ocean and are most likely to be seen from land in Tasmania with occasional sightings in southern Argentina and the Falklands.

Aurorae are not intermittent events but happen all the time, a fact brought vividly to life by The Space Weather Prediction Centre’s fascinating interactive forecast of the location and intensity of an aurora in the world over the next thirty to 90 minutes[1]. Whether we see them or not is dependent upon sky conditions and the level of light pollution.

Named Aurora borealis by Galileo in 1619 and explained scientifically by Norwegian physicist, Kristian Birkelan in 1902/3, the Northern Lights have long fascinated mankind, featuring in cave paintings found in South-western France dating to 30,000 BC, and first recorded by an astronomer in the court of the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar II on a tablet from 567 BC. Absent a rational explanation for their cause, they inspired many myths and superstitions.

For the Vikings, they were the shimmering reflections of the armour of the Valkyries sent by Odin to collect the bodies of the warriors slain in battle, while in Finland fire foxes travelled through the sky so quickly that their tails produced sparks as they brushed the mountains. In northern Sweden the lights, created by shoals of herrings, were a harbinger of a plentiful catch.

Elsewhere they represented the souls of the dead, in Greenland of children who had died in childbirth and in Norway of old maids, while for the Sámi they were to be feared and respected. Provoking them by waving or whistling in their presence ran the risk of being snatched away. In Scotland, the lights, known as “Merry” or “Pretty Dancers, were created by fallen angels and warriors who battled it out in the skies, their drops of blood creating the distinctive red specks on the green heliotrope known as bloodstone.


Dull Or Shiny?

The date of Charles and Julia Hall’s first production of aluminium by electrolysis, February 23, 1886, was significant because in France, Paul Héroult, using the same process to produce aluminium, was quicker off the mark in applying for a patent. When Hall applied for his patent on July 9, 1896, he was sued by Héroult for infringement of the patent granted him on April 23, 1886. Thanks in part to Julia’s testimony, Hall demonstrated to the court’s satisfaction that he had a prior claim.

With a patented process that produced aluminium cheaply and in large quantities, Hall established the Pittsburgh Aluminum Company, later to become Alcoa, which by 1890 was daily producing 250 kilogrammes of the metal. He bequeathed to Alcoa on his death in December 1914 what they regard as their crown jewels, a chest holding the small aluminium pellets produced from his first successful experiment.

The possibilities offered by this lighter, more flexible metal were quickly recognised by inventors and design pioneers. Le Migron, commissioned by Alfred Nobel in 1891, was the first passenger ship with an aluminium hull, while the Hartford Railway Company produced lightweight railway carriages with aluminium seats in 1894. Karl Benz exhibited the first sports car with an aluminium body in Berlin in 1899 and the Wright brothers finally got off the ground with an engine containing aluminium parts.

Manufacturers of household goods also caught the aluminium bug. In 1893 the first mass-produced aluminium kettles were marketed, soon to be followed by frying pans and saucepans, which were lighter and warmed up and cooled down more quickly than their copper and cast-iron predecessors. Aluminium was also seen as a possible alternative to tin foil which, although it had been used since the 18th century to wrap food in while cooking, was expensive to manufacture, rather stiff, and left a bitter, metallic taste.

Robert Victor Neher’s invention of a continuous rolling process to produce thin strips of aluminium foil encouraged him to open the world’s first aluminium rolling plant in the Swiss town of Kreuzlingen in 1910. Bern-based chocolate manufacturer, Tobler, was an early adopter, wrapping their confectionary, including the distinctive triangular Toblerone, in aluminium foil from 1911. Maggi followed suit, using it the next year to package soups and stock cubes.

Aluminium foil soon demonstrated its superiority. It was a much more effective conductor of heat and electricity than tin foil, able to withstand very high temperatures, thus preventing foodstuffs from drying out in the oven. Once the food had been cooked, foil extended its life by offering an effective barrier against light, oxygen, and moisture.

Outside the kitchen it is used by pharmaceutical companies to package drugs and by food manufacturers to produce aseptic packaging which allows perishable goods to be stored without refrigeration. By the mid-20th century aluminium foil, of which Britain is one the largest consumers in the world, had almost completely replaced tin, although, confusingly, it is sometimes still called tin foil.

One of aluminium foil’s most distinctive visual features is a consequence of its manufacturing process. To meet the standards of ISO 7271:2011, the sheets must be between 0.006 and 0.2 millimetres thick and are milled in layers, a process which involves the application of heat and tension to stretch the foil to the required thickness. As a single strip is likely to break during the process, two layers are milled together and then separated.

Where the sides of the two layers have been in contact with each other they develop a matt or dull finish while the outer layers retain a gloss or shiny appearance. However, the performance of the foil is the same, irrespective of which side forms the outside of the wrapping. It seems it is simply a question of aesthetics. When it comes to non-stick foil, though, only one side is treated with the non-stick coating and food must be placed on the side marked “non-stick”.

In future, I will wrap my food in foil to reflect my disposition; shiny side out if I am happy and dull side out if I am down. You never know, it might catch on.