Alan Blumlein

A prolific researcher, innovator and inventor who worked in many areas of technology in the first half of the 20th century. In his relatively short lifetime, he was granted 128 patents for his work with sound recordings, telecommunications and radar. He is particularly known for his role in the development of stereo sound recording, and a collection of test pressings of his experiments in this area were donated to the British Library’s Sound Archive in 2005.

Blumlein was born in London in 1903. While at school he showed a keen interest in how technology worked, which resulted in a scholarship to the City and Guilds College and a First Class degree in Engineering in 1923. On graduating, he found employment at International Western Electric (later Standard Telephones and Cables) where he worked successfully on the improvement of sound quality on telephone lines.

In 1929, Blumlein joined the Columbia record label where he worked on creating the company’s own disc-cutting machinery, and when Columbia became part of EMI Records he moved to EMI’s research base and pressing plant in Hayes. Here he was able to start work on one of his cherished projects – the development of binaural (two-channel) recording. In a memo to management, he declared the benefit of such a system would be to allow the listener to distinguish sound sources from one another as well as the reverberant echoes characteristic of the room in which the recording was made, and also to be able to hear sounds distributed between left and right loudspeakers.

Blumlein later moved into television research for EMI and when the Second World War broke out, he worked on the development of an airborne radar system to aid bomb targeting. Tragically he lost his life on a test flight in June 1942, when the plane he was in caught fire in mid-air and crashed.

The recordings in the collection were made in 1933 and 1934 and feature Blumlein and his colleagues walking around and speaking in the Hayes research auditorium. The labels on the discs are unmarked, but there are clues as to the content etched into the run-off grooves, where phrases such as “6ft further back” and “4ft back and 3ft higher” indicate how Blumlein was trying to reproduce the experience of real-life sound from different perspectives. The collection also includes one of the earliest existing stereo music recordings – a rehearsal of Thomas Beecham conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra at Abbey Road Studios (at the time, EMI Recording Studios).

There are 22 test pressings in the collection and they provide a fascinating document of early experiments in stereo sound recording and reproduction that we take for granted today. The collection has been digitised and can be heard on the British Library’s ‘Sounds’ website at sounds.bl.uk

For more about Save Our Sounds, visit bl.uk/save-our-sounds

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