The invention of the 33 1/3 long-playing record had its beginnings in the invention of the 78-rpm shellac disc. During the early part of the twentieth century, recording companies struggled to get beyond the three and four minute playing barriers that had been in place since the phonograph’s inception. In the 1920s, the Big Three laboratories (Columbia, Edison, and Victor) extended the playing time to seven or eight minutes, while Western Electric managed to push the limit to ten minutes in order to match the length of reel films.[1] The sound quality was not as good on these longer-playing discs as it was on the shorter-playing discs and so nothing beyond that was produced in the 1930s.

The micro-groove or long-playing record technology built on advances that been available, but unused since the 1930s. By this point the big record companies realized that creating a longer-playing record would require a tougher medium that could hold a smaller groove. They would also require more sensitive electromagnetic pick-ups that would not rapidly wear down the records.

The type of recording medium was the first crucial aspect. Earlier attempts by Victor in 1931 to produce a long-playing record had failed because slower turntable speeds on shellac records resulted in more “rumble” and unwanted undesirable frequency noise.[2] Record companies had tried and failed to add more grooves to records to increase their playing time, but the shellac surface could not effectively hold all of the sound information of the smaller grooves. One of the major advances that had been made in the 1930s was the introduction of vinyl resins. These records consisted of mixture of vinyl chloride and vinyl acetate, known as Vinylite, which was harder and finer than shellac, and allowed the discs to be cut with 224 to 226 grooves per inch, which was a massive improvement over the former 80 to 100 grooves per inch.[3] Decreasing the width and increasing the number of grooves was only one of the ways to make records play longer. The other was to slow down the rate of revolution on the turntable. Throughout the 1930s many companies tried one or both of these techniques to create a longer-playing record, but Columbia was first to successfully combine both of these methods to create a long-playing record.

This first successful LP record was developed by Columbia Records, under the direction of Dr. Peter Goldmark, a Hungarian-born electrical engineer in his late thirties who had been delegated the task of developing a practical slow-speed microgroove record with a team of co-workers and Bill Bachman, Columbia’s research director.[4] The team’s goal was to find a way to increase the number of grooves per record without injuring the sound quality of the record. Goldmark also spent time improving the duplicating techniques for the new records because he had been appalled by the lack of concern for foreign particles introduced during this process when he had visited the Columbia Record plant. He understood that these new microgroove records could produce recordings that had less background noise if they were created in cleaner recording rooms.[5] On Friday June 21, 1948, Columbia Records held a press conference at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City to unveil their new technology which was a non-breakable, 12-inch, microgroove disc that had a playing time of twenty-three minutes per side.[6]

Peter Goldmark

Peter Goldmark

Despite the fact that the long-playing record had a history that went back to the 1920s, Columbia wanted to depict it as new technology. Many of the journalists present were skeptical because many other companies had tried and failed to recreate a long-playing record in previous years. The reporters were given a demonstration to help ease their skepticism. The prototype held 224 to 300 grooves per inch, was pressed in a non-breakable plastic known as vinylite, and played for twenty-three minutes per side.[7] The demonstration proved that the LP record had no trace of breaks nor had the sound quality suffered from the increase in grooves. Some reporters were of the mind that the LP record actually had better sound quality than previous records. To further emphasize how revolutionary this product was Columbia had made two stacks of records: one of the new LP records and one of conventional records. Both stacks contained about 325 different musical selections, but the stack of conventional records was almost eight feet tall while the stack of LPs was just over fifteen inches.[8]

Besides demonstrating their new record, Columbia also had to demonstrate the new machine that played it. The new reproducer had a turntable that revolved at a steady 33 1/3 rpm. This slower speed made it extremely important to cut down on the noise of the turntable and to eliminate variations in turning speeds. The reproducer also had an extremely light and specially designed pickup that only produced about six to seven grams of pressure on the record. This lighter pickup meant that the new discs would resist wear and last longer than the older 78s.[9]

LP record player

LP record player

In 1947, Columbia (which did not have its ownrecord player manufacturing facility) kept the LP a secret while they made a deal with the Philco Radio Company in Philadelphia to manufacture the new players necessary for the success of their new type of record.[10] They saw that it was pointless to attempt to market the LP without a good collection of recordings so they assembled a library of recordings in the new format before releasing it to the public. Although all types of music were released as LPs, they were especially ideal for longer pieces of music, such as symphonies or operas.[11]

From the beginning Columbia hoped to have a quick and painless transition to the new record speed. In order to accomplish this they met with RCA Victor, their biggest competitor, and offered to share the LP recording system and technology with them.[12] RCA Victor, angry that Columbia had beaten them, ignored the overtures, forcing Columbia to move forward with the LP alone. This attempted transition to microgroove records was slow for a variety of reasons. One was the “record wars” that erupted between the Columbia and RCA. Columbia had hoped that their 33 1/3-rpm would be the standard, but RCA, believing that they had invented the first LP, introduced their own 45-rpm microgroove disc to compete with Columbia.[13] This “battle of the speeds” confused many consumers and caused them to delay their purchases. By 1950, there were four speeds for consumers to choose from; 78, 33 1/3, 45, and 16. Within the first year of after its release Columbia’s sale of LP records reached over $3 million.[14]

The first LPs were not perfect by any means and met some resistance. They were not uniform, often had a dull sound, contained sustained notes that tended to waver slightly, and sometimes contained pre-echo, which occurred when parts of the music made a faint and untimely appearance ahead of the beat.[15] The different speeds and the different sizes of the hole in the middle of the records made playing 78s, 45s, and 33 1/3s tricky. In June 1947, Columbia Records announced that their record machine company Philco planned to manufacture all future machines with multiple playing speeds.[16] In spite of the many problems, an many enthusiastic consumers saw the future promise of LPs through the minimized problem of surface scratch and record wear. They also saw the benefits of hearing more uninterrupted musical performances on fewer discs, which gave them more music for less money and allowed for easier storage and portability.[17]

[1] Millard, 195.

[2] Morton, 93.

[3] Millard, 203.

[4] Sean Wilentz, 360 Sound: The Columbia Records Story (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2012), 129.

[5] Morton, 135.

[6] Wilentz, 126.

[7] Paul Hume, “45-minute Record Means Great Savings,” The Washington Post, June 27, 1948. (accessed April 22, 2013).

[8] Morton, 138.

[9] Coleman, 59.

[10] Morton, 137.

[11] Delos Smith, “Long-Playing Record Called Great Advance for Home Music,” The Washington Post, October 10, 1948. (accessed April 22, 2013).

[12] Gelatt, 292.

[13] Millard, 206-207.

[14] Coleman, 60.

[15] Gelatt, 293.

[16] Paul Hume, “45-minute Record Means Great Savings,” The Washington Post, June 27, 1948. (accessed April 22, 2013).

[17] Wilentz, 130.

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