What's the history of in-flight music?
August 14, 2019 11:01 AM   Subscribe

I was listening to Joni Mitchell's song "This Flight Tonight" from her 1971 album Blue, and the lines "Got the headphones up high/ Can't numb you out/ Can't drum you out of my mind/ They're playing Goodbye baby, Baby Goodbye" made me wonder when in-flight headphones came into use, and what the technology was for playing back the music. When did multiple channels become an option?
posted by larrybob to Media & Arts (10 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Wikipedia covers this fairly well.
posted by agregoli at 11:09 AM on August 14

The Wikipedia article is pretty good as far as the history of visual in-flight entertainment, but is lacking in explaining the other parts of my question: What were the methods of audio playback (I'm going to guess some sort of tape medium) and particularly when did multiple channels become an option? How would multiple channels work with pneumatic tube headphones?
posted by larrybob at 11:19 AM on August 14

I'm pretty sure each armrest had a little built-in left and right speaker - the pneumatic headphones just carry the sound from those speakers. If I remember correctly, the channel selection was a little dial. I think the music was played on looped tapes.
posted by beyond_pink at 12:15 PM on August 14 [7 favorites]

You probably thought of this already, but the lyrics could also be referring to a battery-powered Walkman-like device that isn’t connected to the aircraft. This might just be in theory though—it looks like cassette tapes were around by 1971 but the Walkman didn’t exist until 1979.
posted by sallybrown at 1:46 PM on August 14

If I had to invent a possible 1970 inflight music system...

An 8-track tape with a special player to create 8 mono channels. Distributed through wiring that has 8 lines and a ground. Selected at armrest through an 8 position switch to select the channel and sent to a single tiny speaker in the armrest interface to the two-tube style headphones.

You probably don't wire for stereo and you probably don't have N tape players. Size and weight and complexity issues. So some sort of looping mono via multi-track single cartridge tape system.

pure speculation
posted by zengargoyle at 2:09 PM on August 14

I remember those pneumatic headphones! I can't say when I took my first flight--probably around the late 70s but the aircraft could have been in service for awhile.

Googling "pneumatic headphones" comes up with a little history of the technology: 1 2
posted by hydrophonic at 3:15 PM on August 14 [1 favorite]

That second article says TWA introduced them in 1961.
posted by hydrophonic at 3:16 PM on August 14 [2 favorites]

I'm pretty sure the pneumatic phones were still in use in the U. S. in the mid-to-late 90s on some domestic flights.
posted by Rat Spatula at 6:35 PM on August 14 [4 favorites]

the lyrics could also be referring to a battery-powered Walkman-like device that isn’t connected to the aircraft. This might just be in theory though

No way -- only astronauts had Walkmen before 1980. And as the linked articles point out, it wa the development of the Walkman which advanced the lightweight 1/8" headphones -- before that, 'phones were clunky and always with the 1/4" jack (which were being used in flight in 1971, but only in the cockpit).

Yeah, those 'pneumatic' headsets persisted into the 1990s - I remember for a while armrests could accommodate both kinds.
posted by Rash at 7:48 PM on August 14 [2 favorites]

I was alive and flying frequently during those years. The system worked as posters like Angryboy described upthread. There were eight or ten channels you could listen to in your pneumatic headphones. You changed channels by turning a numbered dial built in to your arm rest. There was also a volume control. I seem to remember in the early days (for me mid to late 1970s) that the headphones were handed out for free, or at least I don't recall my parents paying for them. There were slight variations between systems, and I never saw the "back end" of the tape decks, but I assume for the ones in the 1960s that the media was reel-to-reel-- not even 8-track was mature enough at that point to be used, and reel-to-reel was the only system that could handle programs over an hour in length. And there were programs over an hour in length, including audio dramas. Other things I remember being available were music, of course, of several different types of popular genres; also comedy was popular. A long trans-Pacific flight was the first time I head Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner's "2000 year old Caveman" bit, which I loved as a child, and I listened to it enough times on that flight to definitely confirm that the programs looped and repeated after long enough. I also remember that in the late 70s, one option that some flights had was for one of the channels to be turned to the pilot's intercom and radio frequency. I always looked for that one first-- not every airline had it and not every plane captain enabled it-- it was a rare treat to find, especially for 10-12 year old me who was obsessed with adult technical jobs. I also remember hearing the Singing Grasshoppers (a sort of copycat of Alvin and the Chipmunks) and some other kids' programming. The musics was all popular top 40 stuff for adults-- I don't remember liking it, although there was a country channel and what we could call soft-rock or contemporary channels. Each airline had its own programming-- I remember British Airways was very different from Pan Am. Once or twice I recall hearing cultural or tourist information about the flight's destination ("Singapore has long been a crossroads for worldwide trade, and it's vibrant mix of cultures and cuisines are sure to please any visitor!"). Well, I hope those memories help clarify what that service was like during the 1970s and 80s.
posted by seasparrow at 8:06 AM on August 15 [7 favorites]

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