When Were Vinyl Records Invented?
A Short History of Vinyl
You may be a longtime lover of vinyl, but do you know how the format got its start?
Vinyl records have a rich history. They’ve shaped popular culture in more ways than they are often given credit for, and the vinyl format continues to have a noticeable lasting impact over a century after its invention. As turntables and audio gear have evolved, anyone looking for a high-quality, immersive music listening experience has been able to find something truly special in vinyl. Listening to albums on vinyl is more than a fad – it’s a practice that has stood the test of time and isn’t going anywhere any time soon.
So, when and how were vinyl records invented? Let’s find out.
Before the modern turntable, there was the phonograph.
Invented by none other than Thomas Edison himself, the phonograph was a device designed for recording sound and playing it back. Revolutionary for its time, the phonograph was invented by Edison in 1877, and the device became the grandfather of the modern record player.
The phonograph had a design that was noticeably different from a turntable. For one, phonographs recorded and played sound back on a foil-coated cylinder rather than on a vinyl record. In addition, a phonograph had two needles rather than the single cartridge found on a turntable. One needle would etch grooves into a cylinder as the cylinder would rotate using a hand-powered crank mechanism. The other needle was used to play back the recordings etched into the cylinder.
Edison’s phonograph laid the groundwork for the design of the turntable, but his invention was still a far cry from the record player that you know and love today.
After the invention of the phonograph, another inventor entered the scene with his own innovative take on audio playback. Ten years after Edison invented the phonograph, German immigrant Emile Berliner patented the gramophone – the father of the modern record player. Unlike the phonograph, the gramophone read vibrations etched in flat discs that were remarkably similar to the vinyl records that you’d see in a music store today.
The gramophone also made another key departure from the design of its predecessor – it only played sound back. Recordings were made independently and then played back on a gramophone, making the device much more appealing to consumers, who were more interested in listening to recorded music than in making it themselves.
Over time, the design of the gramophone continued to evolve, becoming more consumer-friendly and accessible for at-home listening. At the turn of the century, different sizes of discs started being produced for use with gramophones. 7-inch records, 10-inch records, and 12-inch records were all designed to play at different speeds – known as revolutions per minute, or RPM for short. This difference in design made it possible for certain records to contain longer recordings at a slightly lower quality or vice versa.
Over time, 12-inch vinyl discs designed to be played at 33 RPM started to become much more common than 7-inch and 10-inch records, many of which were made out of other materials early on. Vinyl became the industry standard material for producing records in the mid 20th century, but before then, the use of shellac and other materials was much more common.
The First Vinyl
While the 12-inch record format had been toyed with in the early 20th century, vinyl records as we know them today did not come along until 1948, just a few years after the end of World War II. The first 12-inch vinyl records were produced by CBS and designed to play at 33 RPM. Not long after, 7-inch “45s,” smaller records with a shorter play time and a faster RPM, were produced by RCA.
7-inch and 12-inch records, often called “45s” and “33s” in reference to their respective revolutions per minute, revolutionized the way that the world listened to music in the middle of the 20th century. These vinyl records made recorded music infinitely more accessible for at-home listening, allowing for the music industry to explode.
Vinyl’s Lasting Impact
The massive popularity of vinyl records since their first use in the late 1940s changed the music industry forever. Vinyl made it much easier for records to be mass-produced and sold in larger quantities to meet the growing demand for the format. Vinyl became an integral part of how the world enjoyed music and contributed to the lasting cultural impact of many of the greatest albums of the 20th century.
In addition, vinyl changed the way music was made. Producers and bands started working strategically to release records in a way that was designed for long-form listening. As buying full-length albums became more viable and popular for consumers, artists and record labels started paying more attention to full-length releases than they ever had before.
Because 12-inch vinyl could hold over 20 minutes of music on each side from the beginning, it became possible for musicians and bands to record longer, more complex, more cohesive releases. At this point, listeners started to appreciate the experience of listening to an album from start to finish as opposed to just listening to a single. Vinyl made it possible for artists to develop devoted followings who knew all of their songs thanks to their full-length releases.
As vinyl continued to grow in popularity, artists started gaining international recognition thanks to the mass production of their music in the form of records. When vinyl made it possible for listeners in the United States to fall in love with British rock bands like The Rolling Stones, The Who, and so many more, the music industry experienced another massive shift. There was a demand around the world for great music, and bands and musicians started to become truly world-famous at this point, in large part thanks to vinyl.
Vinyl allowed some of the 20th century’s greatest bands and musicians to skyrocket to massive levels of success and stardom. World tours started to become extremely lucrative and viable, causing artists to get even more global exposure. The market for recorded music grew and grew, and at-home listening remained a centerpiece of pop culture as the 20th century unfolded.
Did MP3 Kill Vinyl?
While some might be under the impression that digital audio has made vinyl records obsolete, this is far from true. Vinyl still offers unparalleled sound quality and a completely unique listening experience that cannot be replaced. Streaming may be convenient and highly accessible, but it has arguably cheapened the experience of listening to music. With vinyl, you get an artist’s work as it was intended to be heard.
When compared to the analog sound that you get from a high-quality turntable and speakers, digital audio formats like MP3 and WAV can’t compete. Digital audio tends to be excessively compressed in comparison to its analog counterpart. This compression can make some of the highest and lowest frequencies in a recording inaudible, reducing the complexity of the recording and taking away some of the sound quality as well.
Listening to vinyl on a high-quality setup can get you a much better representation of how an album really sounds. While streaming services might offer you convenience and accessibility, they can’t hold up in terms of audio quality and how immersive the listening experience is.
Vinyl Records Today
Vinyl records continue to see immense popularity and have a passionate following among seekers of the best possible listening experience. Many recent releases have come out on vinyl, giving fans of currently active artists a chance to experience and appreciate vinyl the way their parents and grandparents did.
In addition, audio gear has come a long way since the early days of records and turntables. You can get a record player and set of speakers today that will offer you audio quality that is miles ahead of what the first vinyl listeners got. As audio technology has improved, the perks of listening to records have increased even more.
As more artists continue to record their music digitally instead of with the use of analog gear, records of albums recorded digitally have grown in popularity. Although vinyl is typically associated with classic analog recordings, the format also offers listeners an opportunity to appreciate recent digital releases as well. If an album is recorded digitally, it can still be reproduced on vinyl for a great listening experience.
Why Listen to Vinyl in 2021?
If you are still on the fence about vinyl, consider this. The 2020s have already been a decade of distraction. Streaming services have made it all too easy to skip song after song and never truly experience the music you are listening to. With vinyl, that’s not an option. Instead of getting background music that you can tune out, vinyl gives you a completely immersive listening experience that you can get lost in. And in 2021, who doesn’t need to get lost in some great music?