A Brief History of the Record

History | Editor

(Copyright © 1999 Piero Scaruffi)

Edouard-Leon Scott invented the phonautograph in 1857 to turn aural stimuli into a visual representation (for the purpose of studying the properties of sound) and in 1860 recorded his own voice, the earliest recording of the human voice in history. Scott had no way (and no intention) to play back his recordings. Only in 2008 were scientists able to reproduce his voice.

In 1877 Thomas Edison built the first "phonograph" that could record sound on a musical cylinder and play it back. Charles Cross had a similar idea a few months earlier in France. Edison's phonograph was meant as a telegraph that transmitted voice recordings rather than coded messages. It was meant for the office, not the home. The phonograph transmitted sound by a purely mechanical operation (no electricity). In 1886 Alexander Bell (the inventor of the telephone) introduces a better cylinder, made of wax instead of Edison's tin foil, and Edison soon adopted the idea. In 1888 a businessman named Jesse Lippincott acquired Edison's phonograph business and started the North American Phonograph Company, and, again, he targeted the office, where it could replace stenographers (needless to say, stenographers opposed the invention). In 1890 Edison re-acquired the company. In 1889 Louis Glass invented the coin-operated phonograph for penny arcades where people could listen to prerecorded Edison cylinders. In 1888 a businessman named Jesse Lippincott acquired Edison's phonograph business and started the North American Phonograph Company, and initially he targeted the office, where it could replace stenographers (needless to say, stenographers opposed the invention) but then moved into the business of coin-operated phonographs for entertainment. In 1890 the Columbia Phonograph Company, founded in 1889 in Washington by a former stenographer, Edward Easton, started selling Edison's phonographs and cylinders as a regional subsidiary of North American, but after 1894, when Lippincott died and his North American disbanded, Columbia became Edison's main competitor. Easton's original market was the same as Edison's: to replace stenographers.

A wax cylinder typically played at a speed of 120 RPM and lasted two minutes. The problem with cylinders is that they degraded after just a couple of listening experiences, and hand cranking could never be smooth, thus causing distortions in the sound. In 1887, a German immigrant in Washington, Emile Berliner, built the first "gramophone", that played sound recorded on a flat disk (as opposed to Edison's cylinder), using a technique (the lateral vibration) originally developed by Leon Scott for his phonautograph. Berliner's "records", initially made of celluloid and then of rubber, were more expensive to manufacture but more durable and more easily duplicated. In other words, Berliner's records were meant for the mass production of prerecorded music, not for the office. In 1894 Berliner began selling his rubber disks in the USA, after trying them out in his native Germany. In 1895 Berliner also switched to disks made of shellac. The new device proved to be popular with masses that were eager to listen to the voices of the famous opera stars, starting with Ferruccio Giannini singing Giuseppe Verdi's "La Donna E` Mobile" (released by Berliner in January 1896). By 1904 Enrico Caruso had sold one million records. His Berliner Gramophone Company was based in Philadelphia, although the disks were made in Washington and sales were managed from New York. Eldridge Johnson in New Jersey was manufacturing spring-driven gramophones for Berliner. In 1900 a court de facto killed the Berliner Gramophone Company. Eldridge Johnson obtained Berliner's patent rights and started his own gramophone company in New Jersey, which in 1901 was renamed Victor Talking Machine Company, which quickly became the leader in phonographs (the name "phonograph" was used in the USA for what was really a gramophone) and in record sales.

In 1906 Victor introduced the Victrola, that hid the trumpet-like speaker and the turntable into a cabinet, thus turning the machine into nice-looking furniture perfect for the drawing room of the Victorian middle class. And in 1911 Victor introduced the Victor IV, a cheap phonograph that the middle class can easily afford: there is no profit for Victor but that home phonograph is a way to make the middle class buy Victor records.

The "record" was a revolutionary technology: now machines could even talk. Used by famous people who eventually died, the record was also creepy: you could hear the voice of someone who was dead (the British poet Browning died shortly after recording one of his poems).

Cylinders were still being made and in 1908 Columbia introduced "unbreakable" celluloid cylinders (the "Columbia-Indestructibles") but Columbia abandoned the cylinder market in 1912. Columbia had already started selling disks (records) in 1901, competing with both Edison (cylinders) and Victor (records).

From the point of view of the consumer, the record was the opposite of the camera: the camera is used to "make" pictures, whereas the record is made to "listen" to sound. The active operation of sound recording is relegated to the factory while the audience is limited to passive music listening. Many people make photographs and many view them, but few people make records and many listen to them. Another crucial difference is that the photograph (being a private product) is normally a personal object, while the record (being an industrial product) is a mass-market object. The record creates celebrities that are known by millions of people. The camera ends up being mainly a tool to remember the past while the record becomes a way to be part of the present: what is made on records is mainly what is fashionable today, the novelty. The short duration of records favors music that can be enjoyed in two or three minutes.

National (i.e. Edison in New Jersey), Columbia (Washington) and Victor (New Jersey) created vertically integrated supply chains. Their philosophies of business were different. Edison's philosophy was that the real product was the phonograph (the hardware), not the music that it played, whereas Victor's philosophy was that the real product was the music (the software). Victor had two lines of recordings: classical music (the "red seal" records) and Tin Pan Alley music (the "black seal" records).

By 1921, 106 million records were sold yearly in the USA, mostly published on "Tin Pan Alley", but control of the market was already shifting towards the record companies. In 1925 a technical innovation made it even easier to cut records: the electrical recording process was commercially introduced, quickly replacing the old mechanical one. Then the speed of 78.26 RPM became the standard because it was the easiest to obtain using the standard 3600-rpm motor and 46-tooth gear (78.26 = 3600/46). Thus 1926 and 1927 witnessed a boom in recording (particularly of classical music). In october 1926, the first major magazine of recording, the "Phonograph Monthly Review" began publication.

Recorded music separated the music from the ritual of performing music (church, concert hall, cafe', saloon, nightclub, drawing room...) Listening to music was no longer synonym with social gathering. Music was heard, but the performers were not seen. In the past only the blind could hear music without seeing the performers: now everybody was "blind". Recorded music is disembodied. Music before the records was performed at specific times in specific places, recorded music is music that can be played at any time in any place, recorded music is music that is liberated from traditional settings, recorded music is decontextualized. Another change was due to the fact that recorded music was an industrialized business: recorded music increased the importance and impact of the celebrity while decreasing the role of the community.

Phonograph makers adopted amplifier, microphone and loudspeaker technology developed for the radio, leading to Victor's all-electric phonograph of 1928.

In "Ulysses" James Joyce hints at the fact that maybe we should put a record and a gramophone in every grave, just like we put a picture on it, so that one can see how the person looked and how her voice sounded:

"Besides how could you remember everybody? Eyes, walk, voice. Well, the voice, yes: gramophone. Have a gramophone in every grave or keep it in the house. After dinner on a Sunday. Put on poor old greatgrandfather. Kraahraark! Hellohellohello amawfullyglad kraark awfullygladaseeagain hellohello amawf krpthsth. Remind you of the voice like the photograph reminds you of the face."

This was the age of loud artificial sounds, never heard before in nature: the train, the factory, auto traffic, machine guns (and soon airplane bombs)...

It is not a coincidence that, at about this time, new record companies were created that were to last for a century. In 1921 General Electric acquired the American branch of Marconi Wireless Telegraph and renamed it "Radio Corporation of America" (RCA). In 1924 the Music Corporation of America (MCA) was founded in Chicago as a talent agency, and the German record company Deutsche Grammophon (DG) opened the Polydor company to distribute records abroad. In 1929 Victor was sold to RCA. In 1929 Decca was founded in Britain by Edward Lewis, and RCA purchased the glorious Victor Talking Machines. In 1931 EMI (Electrical and Musical Industries), formed by the merger of Gramophone (HMV) and the British subsidiary of Columbia, by far the largest record label in the world (as it will be for the next 50 years), opened the largest recording studio in the world at Abbey Road in London.

Record companies soon realized that the support was not adequate to a mass market. In 1926 Vitaphone introduced 16-inch acetate-coated shellac discs playing at 33 1/3 RPM (a size and speed calculated to be the equivalent of a reel of film because they were originally meant for the soundtrack of Alan Crosland's Don Juan). But they were hardly noticed. This "long playing" format came to be called "album" because, before its invention, long recordings used to be packaged in "albums" of several 78-RPM records.

Meanwhile, the technology of recording sound was improving. Harvey Fletcher, a former student of Robert Millikan (the first scientist to measure the electrical charge of the electron), had joined Bell Labs in 1916 to conduct acoustic research. His team (notably Joseph Maxfield and Henry Harrison) developed an electrical recording system that dramatically improved on the acoustic recording system invented by Thomas Edison: it greatly reduced the distortion and expanded the dynamic range to the overtones and treble range of the classical instruments. In 1925 Western Electric licensed the Westrex electrical recording system to the record company Victor , (both Bell Labs and Western Electric belonged to AT&T, being respectively the research arm and the manufacturing arm). A classical music conductor, Leopold Stokowski, was instrumental in pushing the technology as far as it could go. He was unhappy with the quality of the recordings of his Philadelphia Orchestra and collaborated directly with Fletcher to build a system that would reproduce the sounds of an orchestra in high fidelity. The Bell Labs scientists physically moved to Philadelphia to work with Stokowski. After several years of research, in 1933 Fletcher and Stokowski demonstrated in New York the auditory illusion created by the new stereophonic sound, with Stokowski conducting his orchestra remotely. After an even more glamorous demonstration at Carnegie Hall in 1940, Walt Disney licensed the stereo technology and hired Stokowski to record the soundtrack for the animated film “Fantasia”.

During World War II the V-Discs were records cut by the government for the troops that were fighting in World War II. They introduced a new format: the 12" vinyl 78 RPM that could fit almost seven minutes of music (as opposed to the three minutes of the traditional 10" record). People got used to hearing an extended performance. It took only three years from the end of the war for Columbia to introduce (in 1948) the 12-inch 33-1/3 RPM long-playing vinyl record (the LP), that allowed recordings of more than twenty minutes per side. At the same time, Nazi Germany had been developing the portable electromagnetic recorder because Adolf Hitler loved to be able to speak to every town without having to physically travel to each one. In 1934 AEG introduced the "magnetophone" that recorded on tapes and the technology was rapidly improved for high fidelity during the war. At the end of the war a USA engineer copied the German invention and turned it into Ampex's first tape recorder (first used in august 1947 to record Bing Crosby). It was now possible to tape lengthy performances of music at an affordable cost. Both the LP and the tape made the old cumbersome "album" (the set of several 78 RPM records) obsolete. This was yet another step in the process that made the live performance less and less essential (after the sheet music, the piano roll, the radio and the 78 RPM record). Each step in this process distancing the listening experience from the actual performance had caused a commercial revolution and further increased the business of music, and the innovations of 1947-48 turned out to be no exception to the rule.

During the 1930s the radio had caused a massive crisis in the record industry. The recovery of record industry came through those innovations: the vinyl record and the 33 RPM playback speed. In 1949 Rogers and Hammerstein's "Oklahoma" became the first record to sell a million copies.

The LP could play 20 mintues of continuous music, and therefore became the de-facto standard for classical music lovers, whereas the 45 RPM became the standard for popular music. Ironically, this division mirrored the division of Victor's Red Seal and Black Seal of 50 years earlier.

In 1958 another technological innovation further improved the market for records: stereophonic recording. And in 1962 the cassette player (invented by Philips in Europe and introduced in the USA in 1964) made music portable and soon the cassette player was even available in cars.

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(Copyright © 1999 Piero Scaruffi)