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Vinyl Records: A Short But Sweet History

Posted by Vinyl Lovers Unite on

Considering we can all buy vinyl records online now, and there's still a thriving music scene devoted to these spinning disks... isn't it kind of amazing to think that we're talking about a technology which is over 125 years old?

Despite the huge pace of technological progress in the last century, vinyl records have become a true cultural mainstay. But how did they get to that point?

In The Beginning, There Was...  Leon Scott?

Contrary to popular belief, Thomas Edison was not the originator of sound recording. While he was an important figure, the true credit for "father of the music record" would probably go to a Frenchman named Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville, or just Leon Scott. His 1857 "phonautograph" was capable of transcribing sounds as lines on paper, but lacked playback capacity. It was only for visual analysis.

However, more than a century after, computers and lasers successfully analyzed some surviving phonautograms. They discovered that, yes, phonautograms had captured enough information for sound playback, giving the world its official oldest music recordings.

Twenty years later, Thomas Edison came on the scene and created the classic wax cylinder-based phonograph - the first device capable of recording and then immediately playing back sounds. He had actually experimented with disc-based formats, but settled on the cylinder instead - and probably to his detriment. That opened the door for Emile Berliner to create the lateral-cut music recording disk we know and love, first introduced in 1889.

Then They Said, Let There Be Disks

The next couple decades of music recording research were an early example of "format wars" - lots of competing technologies, plenty of interest, but none truly hitting critical mass of widespread adoption. That changed in 1919, when the original patent on lateral-cut discs expired, and the format exploded soon afterward, with cylinders fading from use almost entirely within a decade.

Why did discs become the main format? Likely two reasons. First, they were more convenient to store than Edison's cylinders. Also, more music could be recorded on them - although at first, even the largest 12-inch discs could only hold around 5 minutes per side.

The one problem is that the discs were made of a substance called shellac, a kind of resin. They were extremely fragile. Despite a lot of aborted attempts to solve the problem (including a sheet-like flexible format called Durium which was actually sold in newstands weekly) it wasn't until 1931 that the vinyl record truly came to be.  

Invented by RCA Victor, vinyl-based records fit the standard 78rpm format of the time and had reasonably good sound quality. However, most critically, they were adopted by the US Armed Forces for shipping music and radio programs to overseas troops during World War II. Like many other products at the time, ubiquity during WWII gave vinyl records a leg up over their competition.

And There Was Music Everywhere

Beyond the introduction of cheap and reliable vinyl as the format, one other innovation was needed: Creation of 33 1/2 rpm disks in 1948. These allowed 12" records to hold a full collection of tunes, or entire symphonies, rather than just a couple selections. With those three elements in place -disks, vinyl, and the LP format- recorded music was set to explode into households around the world.

It did, and recorded music became a global phenomenon.

So when you buy vinyl records online these days, you're part of a true worldwide cultural milestone. Probably no other media innovation besides the mass-printed book had more impact on society at the time. And now, you can buy vinyl records online from throughout the ages!

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