For the last several years, many young people (maybe even you!) have discovered the pleasure of listening to music on a format their parents once enjoyed: the vinyl record. Have you ever wondered, “when were vinyl records invented?”. After you learn about the history of what audiophiles consider the ultimate music player, you will understand how listening to vinyl gives you an experience that connects you with music lovers of the past.
When Were Vinyl Records Invented?
The first vinyl records were played on a machine called the Red Seal, which was invented in 1901 by the Victor Company; however, at the time, shellac was the material most commonly used to produce discs onto which music was recorded. In 1948, during World War II, vinyl records found a stable place in the market when more manufacturers began producing them in response to a resin shortage. Many troops abroad received vinyl records, and it became clear that the material allowed for the most precise cuts (and therefore the best sound quality). Vinyl records remained the most popular format for listening to music until 1988, when CDs outsold them.
To really understand the origins of the vinyl record, we must go back in time to when people first began recording sound. The material, size, revolving speed, and recording time of our current audio discs vacillated as inventors and manufacturers experimented with audio recording. Read on to learn more about the fascinating historical trajectory that produced the first vinyl records and ultimately led to the vinyl revival of today!
Édouard-Léon Scott and the Phonautograph
In 1857, a Frenchman named Édouard-Léon Scott became the first person to record sound in a visual format. He did so by inventing a machine called the phonautograph which could create lines from the wavelengths and frequencies. To do so, he used a vibrating pen which drew the lines on paper discs.
Thomas Edison and the Phonograph
The first machine capable of playing back recorded sounds was the phonograph, created by none other than Thomas Edison in 1877. The design featured tinfoil, which Edison put over a grooved metal cylinder. In response to a sound, a stylus would vibrate and puncture the tinfoil. The sound would be played back when the tinfoil rotated.
Emile Berliner and the Gramaphone
In 1889, an American inventor born in Germany named Emile Berliner invented a machine that could play flat discs that were basically the same shape as our current vinyl records. He called the machine the gramophone, and people mostly viewed it as a toy or novelty due to the poor sound quality. That situation changed when Berliner began to work with Eldridge R. Johnson and the Victor Talking Machine Company. Johnson worked to improve the sound quality and make the device more useful.
How We Got to Vinyl
The cylinders Thomas Edison used were made of wax. The first discs used in the gramophone were made of zinc covered in a layer of beeswax. Vinyl discs were available in the early part of the twentieth century; however they were not popular because consumers had little spending power during the Great Depression and vinyl was relatively expensive. Shellac remained the dominant material until World War II.
World War II
During World War II, there was suddenly little material to make shellac records, and their cost skyrocketed. Abroad, American troops needed entertainment, and the US Armed Forces started producing vinyl records for them, which were now more affordable. These 12” records that rotated at 78rpm were called V-Discs. After the war, Americans continued to prefer vinyl because it proved to be the best material for sound quality. To this day, most audiophiles agree that nothing can beat it.
When you record music onto a disc, the grooves you make correspond to sound waves. Think again about Édouard-Léon Scott, who first proved that you can use a machine to “draw” sound. Vinyl allows for clearer, more detailed cuts than any of the materials previously used. Therefore, the sound quality is better and more detailed.
How Did the Standard Size of the Vinyl Record Evolve?
One of the records we use most commonly today is the 12 inch 33 1/3 RPM LP. This indicates that the record rotates 33 1/3 times per minute and is “long play”, or capable of playing a full album. Another common record type is the 7 inch 45 RPM. This type of disc is usually used for singles.
How Size and Rotation Speed Were Determined
In the early 1900s, before vinyl became popular, shellac discs were between 10 and 12 inches in diameter and rotated at a speed of 78 RPM. They could play for about 3-5 minutes. The 12” Long Play (LP) 33 1/3 rpm microgroove record was created by Columbia Records and released to the market in 1948. Later, the company RCA Victor started producing the 7” 45 RPMs records with the intent of creating a rival product.
After the Vinyl Record: Cassettes and CDs
Vinyl records dominated the market until 1988, when people began buying more CDs. The CD, which was developed by Phillips in 1974, was the predecessor of the digitalized way we enjoy music today. The cassette tape (created by Phillips in 1962) also rivaled the vinyl record. It was smaller, more portable, and easier to rewind or fast forward.
What Is the Vinyl Revival?
Things Come Back Around
The increased digitalization of our listening experience gradually depleted CD sales, with more and more people downloading music or streaming it. Sales of vinyl records, cassettes, and CDs all fell year by year, until in 2016 there was a surprise. Vinyl record sales increased from the previous year! In the past three years, they have continued to grow at a rate of as much as 1000% per year.
Indie Rock and Nostalgia
The return of the record coincided with the rise of the Indie Rock movement, indicating that listeners who want a natural, authentic listening experience are seeking vinyl over digitalization. In 2016, the world lost several major recording artists: David Bowie, Prince, Leonard Cohen and George Michael. Their passing sparked an interest in the history of pop music, which in turn increased the popularity of vinyl records.
Record Store Day
People are now buying more vinyl records and asking questions like “when were vinyl records invented?” because they are interested in having a real world experience. In an age when much of our lives is lived through social media, many people want an occasional break from the internet. Actually going to a record store, purchasing a record, and taking it home provides a way to get offline. Record Store Day started in 2007 to promote and celebrate the culture of small businesses.
How Can You Enjoy Vinyl Records?
Visit a Record Store Near You
When you go to a local record store, you will be able to promote small business, connect with real people, and enjoy an audio format that has remained undefeated for almost 70 years. Chances are, you might even meet some knowledgeable audiophiles who can answer questions like “when were vinyl records invented?”. Vinyl records are fun to listen to, and the album art makes for great décor.
Get Your Hands on a Real Record Player
Imagine owning a real record player that you can show off to your friends! When you listen to your records, you will understand why people rave about the sound quality.
What Features to Look for in a Record Player
Your record player should be able to play both 33-1/3 and 45 RPM in multiple record sizes. You should check that the speakers are high quality. It should include features to ensure correct alignment and the best quality sound, such as a cloth mat, pitch adjust, and a magnetic cartridge system with a counter weight. For appearance, you can opt for a vintage, wooden look.
What Features Do New Record Players Have?
While it is important to know music history and ask questions like “when were vinyl records invented?”, it's also exciting to learn that the technology continues to progress. New record players combine the technologies of the past and the present. Many can connect to your phone or speakers wirelessly. Some allow you to convert vinyl records to a digital format. You can look for options that allow you to save music to your phone, USB or SD card.
From Invention to Present Day—A History of Superb Sound
So, let's review. When were vinyl records invented? The answer is that we started developing the technologies that let to their invention in the 1800's with the phonautograph, the phonograph, and the gramophone. While some vinyl records were used in the early 20th century, 1948 is an important year because it saw the release of the 12” Long Play (LP) 33 1/3 rpm microgroove record, which is basically the same record we use today.