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. In 1887, Emile Berliner built the first gramophone, that played sound recorded on a flat record (as opposed to Edison's cylinder) made of shellac. This 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).

In 1901 Eldridge Johnson founded in Camden (New Jersey) the 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. 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 (1896). 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.

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 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.

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.

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(Copyright © 1999 Piero Scaruffi)