We are living in the age of the disrupter. Apple and Twitter, Uber and Airbnb, Zuckerberg and Bezos – all are changing our lives, for better or worse. Yet, whatever you make of them, this current crop of agitators are an echo of a far greater period of disruption that occurred long ago, when the world was on the cusp of the 20th century.
The late Victorian era, from around 1870 to 1900, saw the introduction, reinvention or mainstream take-up of an overwhelming array of everyday technologies. The motor car transformed the way people travelled. The telephone and the blot-free fountain pen changed the way people communicated. And the incandescent light bulb altered the way people saw things, both literally and figuratively. However, perhaps the most seismic disruption of this era – the one against which I have set my debut novel, The Industry of Human Happiness – was the newfound ability to capture sound.
In 1877, the American inventor Thomas Edison recited Mary Had a Little Lamb into the mouthpiece of a machine he'd invented called a phonograph. He was gratified when the machine played the nursery rhyme back to him, a needle having scratched his sound waves on to a rotating foil-wrapped cylinder. Ten years later, Emile Berliner invented the flat disc gramophone, which played discs partially made from shellac, a resin taken from the shells of female lac beetles.
The ability to record sounds and allow people to play them back on "talking machines" in their homes was utterly revolutionary. Until that point, if you wanted to hear a piece of music, you had to be present wherever that music was being created. Every musical performance was a unique event, never to be heard again. No longer. Thanks to the dawn of recorded music, the ephemeral and fleeting became concrete and permanent. Entertainment was suddenly, brutally democratised.
I often wonder about the disbelief people must have felt when they were first told that music was now portable and repeatable, that they could own it and listen to it whenever they pleased. "What's that you say? A machine that reproduces music? From a black disc made from crushed beetles' shells? Trot on, sir."
Recorded music arrived in Britain in 1898 when Berliner sent a 25-year-old emissary called Fred Gaisberg from New York to London to launch The Gramophone Company. From a dank basement in Covent Garden, Gaisberg and his small team set about capturing as many sounds as they could using a Heath Robinson-style assemblage of cranks, spindles and horns, surrounded by jars of acid and mountains of zinc master discs. The recording sessions were raucous, drink-fuelled affairs featuring some wonderfully vibrant characters, more often than not rounded up from Rules restaurant two doors down.
According to Gaisberg's diaries, the subjects of these early sessions included a "gifted pianist who could not keep off the bottle"; a "silver-voiced tenor" called Ernest Pike whose father was a cook at Sandringham; and many of the great music hall stars of the day. Pity the "red-nosed" comedian, George Mozart, who arrived at the studio in full make-up and costume, not realising that listeners wouldn't be able to see him. "Dear, simple George," Gaisberg would write years later, "had anticipated television by 35 years."
There was no stopping progress. By 1901 The Gramophone Company was distributing three million records a year across the world, from Calcutta to Sydney. The company went on to become known as His Master's Voice and then EMI, home to an altogether different form of Beatle. In 1903, musical instrument wholesaler Barnett Samuel and Sons (which would later become Decca Records) was selling 3,000 records and 40 machines a day. In 1904, Columbia Phonograph Co opened a factory in Wandsworth, producing 105,000 cylinders and discs a week. That same year 20,000 people turned up to Crystal Palace to hear a playback from a three-turntabled machine called the Triplephone, on which the same disc would be played in triplicate in an attempt to boost the volume (unsurprisingly, it never took off).
Across the industry, format wars were rife. A trend emerged for so-called concealed horns, whereby a gramophone was disguised as a piece of furniture such as a desk, or a piano. One company even produced chocolate records, so peckish customers could eat them after listening. Music lovers had never had it so good.
But then, perhaps a similar claim could be made for the present day, following the latest revolution within the recording industry. The advent of streaming services such as Spotify has given the listener access to almost any piece of music ever written at the touch of a button. If, 15 years ago, someone had told me that music would soon be streamed through the air in real time to a device in my pocket, I'd have looked at them the same way that a Victorian homeowner looked at a gramophone salesman.
More than 68 billion songs were streamed in the UK last year, according to music trade body the BPI. The gramophone and the smartphone may be separated by 120 years but they're not that different: both liberate and entertain; both are wildly convenient; both changed the way people listen to music.
And to think, the early music machines almost never saw the light of day. According to a paper in the Library of Congress, the phonograph was actually intended to be an early telephone answering machine. It was only when Edison heard his voice back, having read his nursery rhyme, that he realised its full potential.
Perhaps in another 120 years, music lovers will experience a third musical revolution. But it's hard to imagine that a force as mercilessly disruptive as the "talking machine" will ever hit the music industry again.
The Industry of Human Happiness by James Hall (Lightning Books, £8.99) will be published on Thursday. To pre-order your copy, call 0844 871 1514 or visit books.telegraph.co.uk