A recent article from the Guardian recently stated that, even if the numbers are far behind streaming, obviously, the vinyl sales in the US are up 21.7% for the first half of 2023. They have been growing for a few years now to a really high point. It’s something I don’t really understand as the price is too high for me—I stick to CDs, and if you want to know, I’m not alone as the sales for them don’t decline either. Anyway, reading that led me to a pretty obvious question:
Who Invented the Vinyl Record?
In the year 1857, a French inventor by the name of Edouard-Leon Scott created a sound recording device known as the Phonautograph. The contraption utilized a vibrating pen to represent sounds on small paper discs graphically. Initially created to understand sound characteristics better, it wasn’t until Thomas Edison’s interest that sound recording truly began.
In 1878, Thomas Edison transformed Scott’s concept into a machine capable of replaying recorded sounds. Edison’s device used a stylus to cut grooves onto cylinders and discs made of tin foil. This marked the birth of sound recording technology.
During the following decade, German-born US inventor Emile Berliner patented the Gramophone. This was the first record player and it required manual operations at 70 RPM (revolutions per minute). At the time, it played vulcanite discs with lateral grooves. This innovation paved the way for the future of recorded music.
The Shellac Era
In 1901, the Victor Company introduced the Red Seal line, playing shellac records in the form of 10 inches, 78 RPM discs. The 78 RPM format became the industry standard for the next 47 years.
Shellac is the name given to a resinous material made from the secretions of the female lac insect, technically known as Kerria lacca and endemic to Southeast Asia and India. And during World War II, shellac became scarce, leading to some 78s being pressed with vinyl materials. This was only the beginning.
The Vinyl Revolution
In 1948, CBS introduced the world’s first LP (Long Play) vinyl record, created by Peter Goldmark. These 12-inch discs played at 33 1/3 RPM and had a capacity of around 21 minutes per side. This format revolutionized the music industry, introducing the album-centric format.
Shortly after the LP, RCA Victor introduced their own innovation, the 45 RPM record—playing at 45 RPM and measuring 7 inches. The LP’s arrival coincided with the rise of rock ’n’ roll in the 1950s, with artists like Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, and Bill Haley making their mark. This genre thrived due to LPs and radio airplay. These formats, LP and 45 RPM, remain industry standards.
Talking about standards, early recordings were made acoustically, with a horn collecting sound for the cutting stylus. The transition to electrical recording began in the 1920s, resulting in improved quality and broader frequency response. Stereophonic recording, initially introduced by English engineer Alan Dower Blumlein in the 1930s, gained popularity in the 1950s. It added a new dimension to the vinyl sound, although some initially viewed it as a gimmick.
Various noise reduction systems, like Telefunken/Nakamichi High-Com II, were introduced to enhance vinyl listening in the 1980s. These systems aimed to reduce noise levels and improve audio quality.
The End of an Era and the Unsuspected Comeback of the Vinyl
In the 1970s, vinyl records took a back seat to compact cassette tapes and eight-track cartridges. The introduction of CDs, digital downloads, and streaming services further reduced vinyl’s popularity.
Despite the rise of digital music, vinyl records have made a resurgence in the 21st century. Their unique sound quality and nostalgic appeal have earned them a dedicated following.
While technology has evolved, vinyl records have remained cherished by audiophiles and collectors. They stand as a testament to the enduring power of analog sound in a digital age.