This year marks the 70th Anniversary of what we now know as vinyl LPs. Although the format has been called many things including albums, phonograph records, 33 1/3 RPM records, 12” records and now vinyl records, the basic premise has remained the same since the beginning. The basic vinyl LP is typically black; however, they have been made in various colors and even as picture discs. However, how many people know why they were made in the first place. Why was this format needed? The vinyl LP has been the one recorded format that simply refuses to die. With the invention and rapid distribution of the CD in the late 1980’s, the vinyl LP was practically led to extinction; however, the format began a resurgence that continues to increase in demand to this day. We will investigate the long history of the vinyl LP beginning with its predecessors in this series of articles.
First of all, we need to take a journey of what led to the creation of the vinyl LP due in part to deficiencies in other formats that preceded them. The earliest format for recording playable sound was the phonograph cylinder. Cylinders were known as records during their era of popularity which lasted from approximately 1896-1915. A cylinder was a hollow object that had audio engraved on the outside surface and was played on mechanical cylinder phonographs. Typically, a cylinder could hold from 2 to 4 minutes worth of recorded material and were typically sold in tubes. The format actually began when Thomas Edison invented the phonograph in 1877 which was actually by accident resulting from his work on the telephone and telegraph. Edison discovered that he could speak into these early machines and they would play what he said back to him. After this discovery, he immediately sketched out and had the first phonograph built.
In its earliest form, the cylinder consisted of a thin sheet of tin foil wrapped around a grooved metal cylinder. The tin foil wrapping was later replaced by wax coated engraving that was wrapped around cardboard tubes. By 1885, the cardboard tube was abandoned for prerecorded all wax cylinders; however, although the quality was better, the cylinder would only last for a limited amount of plays before wearing out. The first wax cylinders were made from ceresin, beeswax and stearic wax. Later, a hard plastic known as celluloid replaced the wax cylinder.
Wax Cylinder Storage Boxes for 4″ cylinders. 3-1/4 x 6 x 5-1/2″.
This was a big advancement since these could be played thousands of times before wearing out; however, over time the celluloid would shrink. During the lifetime of the phonograph cylinder, many successful attempts were made to improve on it with each focusing on making it better in terms of longevity, durability and playability. This was also true of the various phonographs that were used to play them. The early cylinders along with the machines to play them on were not a huge success due to the high expense, the difficulty of operating the machine and the limited time available for recorded material. However, the idea of the phonograph did continue to grow in popularity among the public. These developments represent the beginnings of what would eventually become a highly popular form of entertainment that would eventually lead to what we now know as the vinyl LP. However, there was still another recorded format already in production that would become the staple for phonographs for many years. That was the 78rpm which was the first “flat” record. 78’s coexisted with cylinders for several years before overtaking them around 1912. These were more similar to what later led to the development of the vinyl LP.
The 78rpm flat record consists of embedded spiral grooves which is read by the needle on a phonograph record player. The various numbers represent the speed in revolutions per minute that the record rotates in order for the needle to read the inscribed grooves correctly. 78’s were made beginning around 1898 and ceased production in the late 1950’s being replaced by the 33 1/3 LP along with its sibling the 45rpm record. The early 78rpm record was typically made with brittle materials and then coated with a shellac. Vinyl, short for polyvinyl chloride, was later used due the rarity of shellac during and after World War II. The majority of 78’s are 10 inches in size although other sizes were used as well. They were sold in paper or cardboard covers with a circular cutout showing the record label. This was similar to what 45’s were later sold in. When there were multiple records for a particular piece, they were sold in binders similar in looks to a book which contained the various single 78’s. 78’s could hold around three to four minutes of recorded material. One particularly interesting early version of the 78 was the Edison Diamond Disc. These were produced by Edison Records from 1912 to 1929 and could only be played on a matching Edison phonograph. The records were around 1/4-inch-thick which was quite unusual for the format.
12-1/8 x 10-1/2 x 3/4″ (O.D.). Two-post binder with 5 pockets. Use this professional 78 rpm record binder to replace your worn-out binder box sets. If you want to save the original cover, purchase APS1010, a peel-and-stick pocket that fits on the front cover of the binder.
Although the 78rpm record was the king of recorded material for several years, they did have deficiencies and vulnerabilities. One big disadvantage of the format was that they could only hold a short amount of recorded material. This was of course also true of their predecessor the phonograph cylinder. During this time period, classical music ruled and these pieces were usually quite long. The 78 RPM could only hold between 3 to maybe 4 minutes of music so this meant that to buy a classical piece the listener needed to purchase a book form type package that included several 78’s. While playing a classical piece, the listener would have to get up and keep changing the records to listen to the entire composition. Not only was this a hassle it also took away from the performance; however, listeners became used to this practice particularly since no other solution existed. Once single songs became more popular this was not as big of a disadvantage; however, classical music enthusiasts still had to go through this constant switching process.
The other big disadvantage of 78’s was that they are extremely fragile. Mishandling or dropping them would cause them to shatter into several pieces. This was annoying for any listener; however, for those classical compositions this left a hole within the composition.
These early formats for recorded material as well as the machines that played them were certainly not perfect; however, they represent the timeline for what would lead to the vinyl LP. So, why was this development so important? What made the vinyl LP so different from the phonograph cylinder and the 78? Stay tuned for my next section of this series celebrating the 70th Anniversary of the Vinyl LP to find the answers to all of these questions.
Sources and Further Information:
History of the Cylinder Phonograph | History of Edison Sound Recordings | Articles and Essays | Inventing Entertainment: The Early Motion Pictures and Sound Recordings of the Edison Companies | Digital Collections | Library of Congress
Phonograph Catalog/Advertisement: “I want a phonograph in every home…”. The phonograph was developed as a result of Thomas Edison’s work on two other inventions, the telegraph and the telephone. In 1877, Edison was working on a machine that would transcribe telegraphic messages through indentations on paper tape, which could later be sent over the telegraph repeatedly.
The Edison Diamond Disc Record is a type of phonograph record marketed by Thomas A. Edison, Inc. on their Edison Record label from 1912 to 1929. They were named Diamond Discs because the matching Edison Disc Phonograph was fitted with a permanent conical diamond stylus for playing them.