The History of Vinyl Records

By Tim Neely
A record playing, a modern turntable
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Today's vinyl records aren't that much different from those that were introduced in the 1940s. The styles of music and the artists have changed, and a few refinements have improved their sound quality, most notably the introduction of stereo sound in the late 1950s, but the basic record has not.

Before Vinyl, There Was Shellac: 78s

When Thomas Edison invented the phonograph in 1877, the playback medium was cylindrical in shape. Emile Berliner changed that in 1888 by creating a flat disc to be played on what he called a gramophone. Over a period of several decades, these records became standardized at a speed of approximately 78 rpm and in sizes of 10 and 12 inches in diameter, the larger ones usually for classical music. They were made of a shellac-based compound that proved both noisy and brittle. Also, because of their short length, several changes of side were necessary to listen to, for example, a movement of a symphony.

Long-Playing Records Came Next

In 1931, the RCA Victor Company introduced an early version of a long-playing record, but it failed to catch on and was all but dead by 1933. The Depression and World War II inhibited further attempts to create a more modern record.

After several years of research, Columbia introduced a microgroove 33 1/3 rpm long-playing record in 1948. Unlike the standard 10-inch 78 rpm record, which could play about 3 1/2 minutes on one side, the new “LP” could hold 15-plus minutes on one side of a 10-inch record and up to 25 minutes on one side of a 12-inch disc. Also, these new records were made of a vinyl compound rather than the easily breakable shellac of 78s. The larger discs were originally meant for classical music and the smaller for non-classical, but by 1955, the 10-inch LP had been superseded by the 12-inch version.

The 45 RPM Single Followed

A stack of 45 rpm records
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Less than a year after Columbia's LP, in March 1949, RCA Victor introduced its own microgroove vinyl system — a 7-inch disc that played at 45 rpm. (It's been said that the speed came from subtracting 33 from 78, but there may be [more to it than that] (https://docs.google.com/presentation/d/1O1oKDSwQF-9BLRseArSbj5YQ-z7BAPBpB-08kdCK2l0/pub?start=false&loop=false&delayms=3000&slide=id.g78e9a7dc4_02).) These were closer in concept to the 78s they ended up replacing, as they became the preferred method for singles. RCA also invented a special record changer to go along with the discs, which is why they have the large hole in the middle rather than the small hole of 33s and 78s.

For a few years, record labels issued albums in sets of 45s as well as on long-playing LPs. In 1952, the extended-play 45, which became known as the “EP,” was introduced to replace those boxes of 45s, but once again these EPs rarely served more than a niche market, though some Elvis Presley EPs were huge sellers in 1956. Most labels phased out EP releases by the early 1960s, though Capitol released a Beatles EP in 1965, and RCA issued one last Elvis Presley EP in 1967.

Two Ears, Two Sounds: Stereo Records

The next innovation in records was the stereo disc, which was introduced in 1957.

Stereo recording began on some films as early as 1939, and by 1954, several labels were recording in stereo. Reel-to-reel stereo tapes were sold before stereo records were because there were several competing ideas on how to make stereo records, and no one could agree which was best. Finally, an independent label, Audio Fidelity, chose one of the methods and started to release stereo records in 1957. The major labels followed, and by 1959, many new LPs were being issued in mono and stereo at the same time. Stereo 45s followed but didn't catch on at first; they began to reappear in 1968, and almost all labels were releasing stereo singles by 1973.

Monaural LPs began to be discontinued in 1967, and by the end of 1968, virtually all new albums were in stereo only. Some older releases were converted using various methods into fake stereo; these albums are generally avoided except to complete a collection.

Vinyl Records Today

Most of the refinements in records since then have been to improve what is already there. In the 1970s, quadraphonic (four-channel) sound failed to catch on because of incompatible competing formats. Other techniques, including half-speed mastering and metal mastering, are attempts to improve the stereo sound.

Because vinyl records can become scratched, warped and dirty, other formats slowly took over. Eight-track and cassette tapes were introduced in the 1960s; by the mid-1980s, more cassettes than vinyl records were sold. In 1982, the digital compact disc came to market and superseded both cassettes and LPs by 1991. Though the pops, ticks and warping of vinyl were not an issue with CDs, the shiny metal discs have their own problems, which led audiophiles, disc jockeys and collectors back to the old-fashioned vinyl record.

About the Author

Tim Neely has written and/or edited 30 books and hundreds of articles on music and record collecting since 1995. A former book editor for Goldmine magazine, Neely is a graduate of the University of Notre Dame.