I'm trying to look at this as open mindedly as possible, and doing a little reasearch into areas that I honestly have very little background in.
I went to Wikipedia and found that there are several types of measurable distortion in the area of analog reproduction (don't know if all of them apply equally to all forms of amplification).
 Analog electrical
The signal should be passed at least over the audible range (usually quoted as 20 Hz to 20 kHz) with no significant peaks or dips. The human ear can discern differences in level of about 3 dB in some frequency ranges, so peaks and troughs must be less than this. Much modern equipment is capable of less than ±1 dB variation over the entire audible frequency range. Rapid variations over a small frequency range (ripple), or very steep rolloffs are considered undesirable as they can correspond to resonances associated with energy storage which produce delayed echoes and hence colouration, or decreased quality, of the sound.
Total harmonic distortion (THD)
In music material, there are distinct tones, and some kinds of distortion involve spurious double or triple the frequencies of those tones. Such harmonically related distortion is called harmonic distortion. For high fidelity, this is usually expected to be < 1% for electronic devices; mechanical elements such as loudspeakers usually have inescapable higher levels. Low distortion is relatively easy to achieve in electronics with use of negative feedback, but the use of high levels of feedback in this manner has been the topic of much controversy among audiophiles see electronic amplifier. Essentially all loudspeakers produce more distortion than electronics, and 1-5% distortion is not unheard of at moderately loud listening levels. Human ears are less sensitive to distortion in the bass frequencies, and levels are usually expected to be under 10% at loud playback. Distortion which creates only even-order harmonics for a sine wave input is sometimes considered less bothersome than odd-order distortion.
Output power for amplifiers is ideally measured and quoted as maximum Root Mean Square (RMS) power output per channel, at a specified distortion level at a particular load, which by convention and government regulation, is considered the most meaningful measure of power available on music signals, though real, non-clipping music has a high peak-to-average ratio, and usually averages well below the maximum possible. The commonly given measurement of PMPO (peak music power out) is largely meaningless and often used in marketing literature; in the late 1960s there was much controversy over this point and the US Government (FTA) required that RMS figures be quoted for all high fidelity equipment. Music power has been making a comeback in recent years. See also Audio power.
Power specifications require the load impedance to be specified, and in some cases two figures will be given (for instance, a power amplifier for loudspeakers will be typically measured at 4 and 8 ohms). Any amplifier will drive more current to a lower impedance load. For example, it will deliver more power into a 4-ohm load, as compared to 8-ohm, but it must not be assumed that it is capable of sustaining the extra current unless it is specified so. Power supply limitations may limit high current performance.
Intermodulation distortion (IMD)
Distortion which is not harmonically related to the signal being amplified is intermodulation distortion. It is a measure of the level of spurious signals resulting from unwanted combination of different frequency input signals. This effect results from non-linearities in the system. Sufficiently high levels of negative feedback can reduce this effect in an amplifier. Many believe it is better to design electronics in a way to minimize feedback levels, though this is difficult to achieve while meeting other high accuracy requirements. Intermodulation in loudspeaker drivers is, as with harmonic distortion, almost always larger than in most electronics. IMD increases with cone excursion. Reducing a driver's bandwidth directly reduces IMD. This is achieved by splitting the desired frequency range into separate bands and employing separate drivers for each band of frequencies, and feeding them through a crossover filter network. Steep slope crossover filters are most effective at IMD reduction, but may be too expensive to implement using high-current components and may introduce ringing distortion.
The level of unwanted noise generated by the system itself, or by interference from external sources added to the signal. Hum usually refers to noise only at power line frequencies (as opposed to broadband white noise), which is introduced through induction of power line signals into the inputs of gain stages. Or from inadequately regulated power supplies.
The introduction of noise (from another signal channel) caused by stray inductance or capacitance between components or lines. Crosstalk reduces, sometimes noticeably, separation between channels (eg, in a stereo system). It is given in dB relative to a nominal level of signal in the path receiving interference. Crosstalk is normally only a problem in equipment in which several audio channels are handled in the same chassis.
Common-mode rejection ratio (CMRR)
All electronic equipment with inputs is susceptible to this problem. In balanced audio systems, there are equal and opposite signals (difference-mode) in inputs, and any interference imposed on both leads will be subtracted, canceling out that interference (ie, the common-mode). CMRR is a measure of a system's ability to ignore any such interference and especially hum which arises at its input. It is generally only significant with long lines on an input, or when some kinds of ground loop problems exist. Unbalanced inputs do not have common mode resistance; induced noise on their inputs appears directly as noise or hum.
Dynamic range and Signal-to-noise ratio (SNR)
The difference between the maximum level a component can accommodate and the noise level it produces. Input noise is not counted in this measurement. It is measured in dB.
Dynamic range refers to the ratio of maximum to minimum loudness in a given signal source (eg, music or programme material), and this measurement also quantifies the maximum dynamic range an audio system can carry. This is the ratio (usually expressed in dB) between the noise floor of the device with no signal and the maximum signal (usually a sine wave) that can be output at a specified (low) distortion level.
Since the early 1990s it has been recommended by several authorities including the Audio Engineering Society that measurements of dynamic range be made with an audio signal present. This avoids questionable measurements based on the use of blank media, or muting circuits.
Signal-to-noise ratio (SNR), however, is the ratio between the noise floor and an arbitrary reference level or alignment level. In "professional" recording equipment, this reference level is usually +4 dBu (IEC 60268-17), though sometimes 0 dBu (UK and Europe - EBU standard Alignment level). 'Test level', 'measurement level' and 'line-up level' mean different things, often leading to confusion. In "consumer" equipment, no standard exists, though −10 dBV and −6 dBu are common.
Different media characteristically exhibit different amounts of noise and headroom. Though the values vary widely between units, a typical analogue cassette might give 60 dB, a CD almost 100 dB. Most modern quality amplifiers have >110 dB dynamic range, which approaches that of the human ear, usually taken as around 130 dB. See Programme levels.
Phase distortion, Group delay, and Phase delay
A perfect audio component will maintain the phase coherency of a signal over the full range of frequencies. Phase distortion can be extremely difficult to reduce or eliminate. The human ear is largely insensitive to phase distortion, though it is exquisitely sensitive to relative phase relationships within heard sounds. The complex nature of our sensitivity to phase errors, coupled with the lack of a convenient test that delivers an easily understood quality rating, is the reason that it is not a part of conventional audio specifications. Multi-driver loudspeaker systems may have complex phase distortions, caused or corrected by crossovers, driver placement, and the phase behaviour of the specific driver.
A system may have low distortion for a steady-state signal, but not on sudden transients. In amplifiers, this problem can be traced to power supplies in some instances, to insufficient high frequency performance or to excessive negative feedback. Related measurements are slew rate and rise time. Distortion in transient response can be hard to measure. Many otherwise good power amplifier designs have been found to have inadequate slew rates, by modern standards. In loudspeakers, transient response performance is affected by the mass and resonances of drivers and enclosures and by group delay and phase delay introduced by poorly-designed crossover filtering or inadequate time alignment of all the loudspeaker's drivers. Most loudspeakers generate significant amounts of transient distortion, though some designs are less prone to this (e.g. electrostatic loudspeakers, plasma arc tweeters, ribbon tweeters and horn enclosures with multiple entry points).
A higher number is generally believed to be better. This is a measure of how well a power amplifier controls the undesired motion of a loudspeaker driver. An amplifier must be able to suppress resonances caused by mechanical motion (e.g., inertia) of a speaker cone, especially a low frequency driver with greater mass. For conventional loudspeaker drivers, this essentially involves ensuring that the output impedance of the amplifier is close to zero and that the speaker wires are sufficiently short and have sufficiently large diameter. Damping factor is the ratio of the output impedance of an amplifier and connecting cables to the DC resistance of a voice coil, which means that long, skinny speaker wires will undo the benefits of good electronic damping performance from the amplifier. A damping factor of 20 or greater is considered adequate for live sound reinforcement systems, as the SPL of inertia-related driver movement is 26 dB less than signal level and won't be heard. Negative feedback in an amplifier design generally increases its damping factor.[
Sorry for the long quote.
Seems to me that there are several variables here which could lead to perceived differences.
I was primarily interested in when these forms of measurable distortion were discovered. I was going to ask if prior to our knowledge of them, these were present - of course they were, we just either did not know about them, or did not have a way/sophisticated enough equipment to measure them.
Do you think we know about all forms of distortion which can be introduced by amplifiers, or does the possibility exist that we are still learning?
Would that possibly lead to the different opinions on this?