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MP3 historyIn May, the creators of the MP3 called time of death on their revolutionary file format. The Fraunhofer Institute in Germany announced that its licensing program for MP3-related patents—the first of which was issued in the United States on Nov. 26, 1996—had been terminated. Superior audio formats such as AAC had overtaken the once-mighty MP3.

While most of us first heard of MP3s in the late 1990s, when Napster ate up bandwidth on college campuses from coast to coast, the file format had been in the works since 1977 when Karlheinz Brandenburg began researching ways to compress audio and video files for easy transmission without loss of quality. In 1982, Brandenburg’s PhD advisor asked him for help after the rejection of a patent application related to transmitting music over digital phone lines. The patent examiner had declared such an idea “impossible.”

Making the MP3 a Reality

In 1988, the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) called for standardization in audio encoding, and as a result, the Moving Picture Experts Group, or MPEG, was formed. Brandenburg was a part of that group, which gave its name to its efforts. (MPEG Audio Layer III, for instance, became MP3 when the file extension .mp3 was adopted July 14, 1995.)

MPEG thought it had a winning effort with one version of MP3 until Brandenburg decided to try encoding “Tom’s Diner” by Suzanne Vega. As Brandenburg told NPR, Vega’s voice was “destroyed” by the compression. Development continued until the MP3 file format could do Vega’s voice justice.

The MP3 was perfected by 1992 but didn’t catch on until the MP3 player Winamp made its debut in 1997. The music industry was forever changed, proving the patent examiner wrong.

Tech Time Warp is a weekly feature that looks back at interesting moments and milestones in tech history.

Photo: A. and I. Kruk/

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Kate Johanns

Posted by Kate Johanns

Kate Johanns is a communications professional and freelance writer with more than 13 years of experience in publishing and marketing.

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