The Rise and Fall and Rise of the LP

The music aficionados among you may have noticed how the LP record has been making a comeback of sorts in recent years. I’ve personally seen evidence of this at my local Barnes & Noble music department, which has cleared out rows of CD shelves to make room for new pressings of both classic LPs and new recordings by top artists. How ironic: a slice of our popular culture is taking a deliberate technological step backwards, forsaking mp3 players and CDs, in favor of the humble, grooved (and groovy) LP record.

It behooves us, therefore (or, at least, it behooves me), to review the history of the LP. Here then, is a very truncated version:

Like most modern inventions, the long-playing record is part of an evolution, in which improvements, both big and small, took place as part of an ongoing timeline.  We’ve all been taught since childhood to look to Thomas Edison and his 1877 invention. By the early 1880s, Edison had hit upon the idea of using hard wax cylinders to record and play sounds, voices, and music. The cylinders, played at 160 rpm, had their limitations–not the least of which was their short playing time of about two minutes–but proved popular with the public.

Edison was not without his competitors. Other inventors began introducing their own formats of playing back sound and music, including on disk records. “Gramophone” was actually the name given to the first flat recording disks, invented by Emile Berliner in 1889, and necessary improvements led to the formation of the Victor Talking Machine Company. A decade later, 10-inch and 12-inch discs appeared on the market, with the 12-inch records still only able to play about four minutes of music. Edison responded with a new, improved cylinder that could play for about the same time.

Disks that could play longer, at 78 rpm, were initially developed to accompany motion picture films, serving as a their soundtracks, before sound was integrated onto the film itself. When music 78s were sold to the public, longer classical pieces and pop song collections had to be sold as multi-disk packages, with the record sleeves bound together to create a book-like “album”–a term that we still use today.

In September of 1931, RCA Victor introduced the first long-laying 33 1/3 records for home use,  as described in this ad for a disk-changing player. Both 10-inch and 12-inch records were offered, usually for light classical and popular music, and the 12-inch disks boasted a 15-minute capacity on each side (the first release was Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, performed by the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra).

But there was a catch. Turntables that accommodated both the 78 and 33 1/3 playing speeds, or special adaptors offered for other players, were expensive, especially during the Depression. Record sales began plunging. RCA was also sluggish in producing and marketing new titles, and ceased production of the LP format altogether before mid-decade.

Now comes the part of the story that you probably haven’t heard. One of the greatest of modern day inventors, who has been relegated to virtual obscurity for the past 70 years, can be credited with inventing stereo for records and films in the 1930s. His name was Alan Blumlein, a London-born audio engineer who, while working for EMI in 1931, first proposed and developed a “binaural” recording system for records and film , in which sound could be separated into two distinct audio channels. In 1933, he cut the first stereo disk, containing two such channels, and received its patent that year. The following year, working at the brand new EMI studios on Abbey Road in London, Blumlein and his team continued their experimental work.

Blumlein’s team demonstrates stereo’s potential for films (you can see this clip on YouTube).

By the following year, however, EMI shelved further work on stereo, citing its limited commercial potential(!). Blumlein, being the genius he was, then went to work on the fledgling medium of television. In 1936, EMI presented the world’s first electronic TV system, which was chosen by the BBC over the groundbreaking but inferior mechanical system developed by the legendary John Logie Baird.

At the outbreak of World War II, Blumlein turned his attention to the highly secret development of radar for the RAF, where he pioneered a technology called H2S, enabling bombers to find their targets through thick cloud cover. Unfortunately, during a 1942 flight intended to continue testing the H2S system, Blumlein’s plane crashed in Scotland, killing all onboard. The top secret nature of his work even prevented his own obituary from being printed in newspapers at the time. He was only 38.

The war years saw continued of dominance by 78 rpm records, but in June of 1948, Columbia records held a well-publicized press conference in New York to announce the new long-playing, 33 1/3 rpm record, capable of holding over twenty minutes of music on each side. This new, improved version of the original LP helped spur a tremendous resurgence of record sales throughout he U.S. between 1948 and 1958.  And, Blumlein’s invention of stereo was revived in the mid-’50s in the U.K. and U.S., by both big American record companies (RCA), and small (Remington Records), and Decca Records in the U.K.  Ironically, these companies began to record high-end music, such as classical symphonies, on stereo tape. Before long, it was stereo reel-to-reel tapes, first released by RCA in 1954, that began to attract the attention of audiophiles. For some time, it looked as if stereo tapes would be the next Big Thing. It would be another three years before stereo records would finally hit the mass market.

In December of 1957, the first public demonstration of a stereo record for consumers took place, at the Times Auditorium in New York City. The disk, produced by Audio Fidelity Records, presented the Dukes of Dixieland on side A, while side B offered railroad sound effects. The accompanying publicity campaign spurred other labels to play catch-up in their pursuit of mass producing their own stereo releases.  March of 1958 saw the first major stereo releases on records, including Johnny Puleo and his Harmonica Gang, Vol. 1, and Lionel Hampton and his Orchestra.

And, yes, that’s the short version. We haven’t even gotten to the arrival of the CD, which we will…soon!