Does Steve Jobs deserve the level of adulation he’s received? Well, yes. But he’s not the only game-changer in music history. How about the CD? The cassette? The MP3? How many people even know who invented them?
One could make the case that men like Kozo Ohsone, James Russell, and Karlheinz Bradenburg played an equally important role in how we listen to music today. Yet their names have been mostly lost to history, relegated to mere footnotes.
Kozo Ohsone was the general manager of the tape recorder business division of Japan’s Sony Music in the 1970s, which launched the first personal cassette player in 1979. The Sony Walkman, taking full advantage of the smaller tape format, allowed listeners to play music easily on the go.
James Russell, an American physicist at General Electric, is frequently cited as the inventor of the compact disc, the first digital playback format for music. Russell’s breakthrough came in the 60s, though it did not gain widespread acceptance until Philips Consumer Electronics licensed the technology and began pushing the medium in the 1980s.
The German-born Bradenburg, meanwhile, was one of a small handful of audio engineers credited with successfully creating the widespread compressed audio file known as the MP3. It’s hard to imagine how we would be listening to music today without the contributions of these individuals.
Paving the way for the iPod, the Sony Walkman allowed people to listen in a variety of settings outside the confines of the living room or the car and, though it seems silly it was even a question in hindsight, actually proved that there was a ready and viable market for music on-the-go.
At the time of its release, the compact disc was heralded for its durability as compared to vinyl, a notoriously sensitive medium (granted, such a distinction seems almost quaint in the age of the digital file). Yet the format’s greatest advancement is how it enabled the listener to instantaneously skip songs. No longer was anyone forced to endure a sub-par album track and adhere to an artist or record label’s flawed vision.
In the wake of Steve Jobs’ passing, I bring up these individuals’ achievements, great as they are, not to diminish Jobs’, but quite to the contrary, to cast them in sharper relief.
One of the most striking things about the press coverage in the immediate aftermath of Jobs’ death is how much of his significance has been bound up in his company’s creations – the most prominent of which being the iPod. Yet describing his achievements in material terms, I believe, does the man a great disservice.
The iPod, while an undoubtedly brilliant device in its recasting of the Sony Walkman for the digital age, seems likely to have an even shorter shelf life than many of the breakthroughs in recorded music technology that preceded it, including the compact disc. The iPod is still the dominant device for digital music consumption, but streaming technology and cloud computing are already hastening its obsolescence.
Still, it remains undeniable that Jobs struck a chord. The outpouring of grief following news of his death was the kind usually reserved for heads of state or renowned humanitarians, not CEOs. And I’d argue the very genuine displays of emotion have less to do with what he created than how he created.
In a world of technology run amok, Jobs and his company created sleek devices that cut through the noise, delivering state of the art without piling on extraneous features and getting in the way of what really mattered. This is no small feat, and will almost certainly prove to be the Apple founder’s lasting legacy.
Recording mediums may change, but, as Jobs well knew, music is forever.