Lessons of History

It is the sad fate of also-rans to be forgotten by history. Who ran against George Washington for president? Even those who succeed still may not be remembered.

It is the sad fate of also-rans to be forgotten by history. Who ran against George Washington for president? Even those who succeed still may not be remembered. Henry Ford did not invent the automobile, but does anyone remember who did? If I were to ask EM readers for the name of the first person to make sound with a computer, would any correctly respond that it was Max Mathews? OK, Max, you would, but who else?

It came as no surprise, then, that several industry friends of mine were dumbfounded when informed at a recent dinner that the first digital recording of audio predated Mathews's astonishing 1955 achievement by several years. Though the effort ultimately came to nothing, it is a story worth knowing, if only for the perspective it lends.

In 1951, Giancarlo Cioniou was nothing more than one of many tailors in his native city of Milan, Italy. Gaspare Cioniou, Giancarlo's French father, had met his Italian seamstress wife, Pietra, in Paris during the Roaring Twenties. Gaspare was an actor, which meant that his wife supported the family. After the couple relocated to Milan, Pietra gave birth to three sons. She taught them all to sew rather than chance their being tempted by the theater.

The boys all became tailors, sharing a custom tailoring business for nearly 26 years. Gioc (as his family called him) developed a particular fondness and talent for leather work.

One July day, Gioc was using his modified sewing machine to punch holes in a piece of leather destined to become a brass-studded vest. As he worked, he listened to a radio drama about naval battles in World War II. One of the broadcast's background effects was the sound of a telegraph sending signals in Morse code. Cioniou was surprised to realize he had unconsciously started varying the speed at which he drew the leather through the machine in accordance with the Morse code, thus altering the spacing between the holes.

It suddenly occurred to Cioniou that he was essentially storing the Morse code in the pattern of holes. History's most fascinating aspects are the least explicable: why, with no previous knowledge of or interest in sound, did Gioc Cioniou leap to the realization his tailoring goof could be turned into a method of storing sound? Cioniou himself was never able to provide an explanation, but the next 18 months found him conducting a series of experiments. He started by manually varying the speed at which he moved the leather. He then created elaborate mechanisms that changed the speed by means of a set of switches, which were triggered as the sound volume moved a stylus-type device past "thresh old" reeds. A clunky optomechanical system read the hole patterns and produced a highly distorted, but recognizable, output.

Gioc's brothers were also captivated by the idea. They conducted their own tests but used the size of the holes, rather than spacing, to store information.

Eventually, the brothers developed their techniques into two different working systems. They marketed and sold several of each and, sibling rivalry aside, interesting things were unfolding-until Gioc sold a system to a man and his brothers sold one of theirs to the man's sister. When the two customers discovered that they could not listen to their recordings at the other's house, they were outraged.

Gioc and his brothers fought viciously about whose system was better, taking out vitriolic ads berating each other's system and touting their own. Before long, interest in both systems evaporated and the recordings were only bizarrely punched scraps of leather rotting in the attic. The incompatibility of their systems destroyed them both.

It is said that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it, and no better example exists in our business than the story of Gioc Cioniou.