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The Long History Of Vinyl Records

Vinyl Records. 

We love them, we collect them, we listen to them. 

But where exactly did they come from? Let’s paint ourselves a little bit of a timeline, to see where they came from and their dramatic journey to how we know them now. 

Back in Time: The 1800's

Technically, the furthest leap back in time we can take is to 1857. While there was no such thing as a vinyl record at this point, this year saw the invention of the phonautograph. This clever machine didn’t actually play sound, but recorded it. It did this via a vibrating diaphragm and stylus, the stylus would note the vibrations in a line. The phonautograph had no use musically, and was used in laboratories instead. 

20 years later is when everything truly began. 

In 1877, Thomas Edison invented the phonograph. Much like its predecessor it could in fact record sound, but more important, the phonograph could play sound. It originally operated via a tinfoil-clad, grooved metal cylinder being spun on the mechanism, while a stylus operating via sound vibrations would indent the tinfoil. 

Tinfoil ended up being more a novelty than anything else. 

Come 1887, Edison crafted an improved phonograph that used a wax cylinder instead of the tinfoil sheet. This not only made the cylinder usable more than once, but also improved the sound quality immensely. This newly improved phonograph went on to dominate the market of recorded sound for over a decade. 

Running alongside the cylinder model were discs. Initially flat discs, the format was more fragile than its wax counterpart and didn’t take off until 1889, when lateral-cut discs were produced by Emile Berliner, the founder of the Berliner Gramophone, the name that would be coined for record players for plenty of time to come. 

These discs would record their audio with cuts on the sides of the groove, which would in turn cause the stylus reading the audio to move from side to side. At this time, the discs were made of a plastic material called shellac. 

Berliner’s first discs were just 5 inches in diameter, played on a hand-operated machine. Due to the machine’s inability to work on its own as well as the poor audio quality of the small discs, this invention was at first, a novelty at best. They would operate between 60 and 130 rpm, though by 1890, 7 inch records became the norm. 

1894 introduced the norm of 70 rpm discs, and in the next year of 1895, the Gramophone would become the first mass produced record player and would rule the home entertainment market for decades to come. 

Into the 1900's: The Very First Vinyl Record

From here, with record players having entered the general market, various sizes were tried and tested. 7 inch records remained the norm for a long time. In 1901, 10 inch records were realized and could play more than 4 minutes of audio, and 2 years later in 1903, 12 inch records came around with more than 5. During the size war, it was in 1910 that 10 inch records finally overtook their 7 inch counterparts, 12 inch records didn’t quite take off just yet. As the disc format continued to grow, this would eventually jump up to a norm of 78 rpm. 

Over the course of disc sizes thwarting each other, it took until just 1919 that they had run wax cylinders out of the market down to being easier to produce and obtain, and of course thanks to the huge surge of commercially available Gramophone record players, cylinders lost their footing in the market and eventually phased out. 

After the long reign of 10 inch shellac records came 1931. 

The very first, commercially available, 12” LP vinyl record created by RCA Victor. It ran at 33 ½ rpm. While their inception would ripple into the future as revolutionary, their initial release was a complete financial failure. 

These records were very expensive upon their release. 

People had little to no access to record players that could play these new records.

At the time of the Great Depression, the records were largely dismissed by the public. 

The Downfall of Shellac

Up until the 1940’s, shellac returned to record production. However, due to the difficulties of the war, supplies to create shellac records were weigning. This reluctantly brought vinyl back onto the scene, however their value soon became apparent. 

As it turned out, vinyl was much safer to transport than shellac, due to being a little more resilient in some ways. As well as this, vinyl had been shown to feature much less unwanted background noise than shellac, providing a much easier listening experience. 

RCA Victor and Columbia Duke It Out

By 1948, modern turntables were developed by Columbia at an affordable standard to commercially sell to the public. With this innovation, vinyl had come to stay, as these record players were fitted with the appropriate speeds and sizes of 33 ½ rpm and 45 rpm and 12 / 10 / 7 inches to prevent the shortcomings that RCA Victor faced of their own LP release. 

Given the versatility of the record players, Columbia released a 7 inch, 33 ½ rpm record, known as the ZLP. This particular format is a relic of time now, it ran for an extremely short amount of time before RCA Victor came back with their own solution to outmatch it. 

The 7 inch, 45 rpm single. 

This format featured a particularly large hole in its center, allowing it to spin at a faster rate and produce higher quality audio, donning a playtime of roughly 8 minutes per side. 

Radio Enters The Fray

During this eventful period of the 1940’s, radio had also found rising popularity. It didn’t hinder the performance of vinyl records too much, but certainly played its own important role in home and public entertainment.

After 1956, 10 inch records were more or less scrapped in favour of the opposing 7 and 12 inch sizes. 

Extended Play

On top of the popular inception of 7 inch singles, there was also the creation of 7 inch EPs, or, “Extended Play”. By modifying the grooves in the record, EPs were able to achieve an impressive 10 or 15 minutes of playtime despite their small size. At the height of their popularity, EPs could frequently sell as a set of 4 in place of their respective LP, often to cater to those who had a 45 rpm record player rather than a 33 ½ rpm one. 

While EPs were a huge success for a while, they ended up fading out of the market during the 1950’s, but not in Europe. EPs survived throughout even the 60’s in Europe, where the format would find use from music giants The Beatles, among others. 1957 saw the release of the first commercially available stereo channel records, released by Audio Fidelity. 

The Turntable Resurgence, the reign of Vinyl Records

During this time, radio still held its title as a titan of home entertainment, and generally ruled it for these last two decades. Turntables found another surge in popularity during the 60’s and 70’s, creating a massive surge in the vinyl record scene. A lot of vintage records you’d find today are commonly from this era as well as the 80’s. 

The 90's: The Rise of CD and Digital

Towards the back end of the 90’s, digital music and CDs began taking the lead in the music market. Despite this, vinyl records still found a great use, especially via DJs. DJs would hook up audio mixers to turntables, using their hands to move the record against the turntable’s stylus to create brand new sounds. 

During the late 90’s and into the 2000’s, CD’s had their hayday and eventually, digital music completely took over the music market scene. It felt like records had slowly but surely faded out after nearly a century of history. They still found production during this time, but didn’t have the centre stage as they used to. 

Still, in 2008, Record Store Day was conceived. This celebration of independent record stores celebrated music as a whole, with special vinyl and CD releases alike, and continued without a hitch from its inception all the way to the present. This day also found celebration via special shows by select artists to promote stores and their new, special editions alike. 

And then, there’s now. 

Vinyl records have been seeping back into the music market, new records being more popular than ever before and old records finding their way back into the hands of avid collectors. There are more record stores now than ever, all sharing the same passion for the high quality, excellent medium that is vinyl records! 

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