Thomas Edison created his first phonograph in 1877 but sat on it for more than a decade before finally releasing it to the public in 1888. Edison’s phonographs used cylinders to record and play back music. Consumers could even buy blank cylinders and record themselves at home! For the first several years, the cylinders were not very durable and only lasted for about 100 plays. The customers could then trade them back in for credit. Improvements were made over the years that might be compared advancements made recently in optical discs, from CD to DVD to Blu-Ray. The first cylinders could only handle TWO MINUTES. Later they went up to a whopping FOUR MINUTES. Cylinders were manufactured all the way up until 1929.
Gramophone disc – early years
The flat disc record that we’re all familiar with was introduced by Berliner in 1894. Other companies started to make disc players, as well. The various companies’ products were often incompatible across platforms. Originally, someone realized that music could be recorded on BOTH sides of the disc and suddenly the disc had a true advantage over the cylinder – it could hold twice as much music.
Eventually, the disc became the format of choice and companies finally settled on a uniform speed of 78 revolutions per minute. These records were 10″ or 12″ only held about 4 minutes on each side.
33rpm (12″) and 45rpm (7″)
In the 1940s, it became possible to make the grooves much smaller than ever before. This resulted in two separate approaches. First, there was the 45rpm, 7″ disc. This format was basically the same as the old 78’s but on a much smaller and more convenient disc. The other approach was the 33rpm, 12″ disc, which could hold a whopping 40 minutes of music! In the end, the 33 became the standard for full-length releases and the 45 became the standard for singles.
Early, Hilarious production techniques:
For the first decade or so, molding techniques for reproduction hadn’t been discovered. Instead, artists recorded the same song over and over again. 10-20 cylinders could be produced from each performance, thanks to tubes leading from the recording bell. The disc manufacturers were the first to create molding techniques for mass reproduction, giving them a temporary advantage.
The early days of recording industry were like today’s video game industry:
Each manufacturer decided who and what could appear on their machines. Various formats were not cross-compatible until the 78rpm became the standard. Will video games follow this route?
The birth of the ALBUM:
Before the birth of the 12″ 33rpm record, the max playing time of records was about 8 minutes so, as you might have guessed, EVERY record was a single. The only way around this was to release a collection of several records. The first such releases were symphonies and longer classical works, released in collections of up to 20 separate records. These collections were often sold in, or at least stored in, album books much like photo albums. Practically every 33rpm record contained as much music as the old album collections, so the term ‘album’ carried over. For the first couple of decades of 33’s, most albums were compilations of various singles and hits. Classical and jazz were the first genres to widely record long programs specifically to be released as albums. Rock and country were really slow to pick up on this concept and the non-compilation albums didn’t become widespread until the late 50s, right before the Beatles and Beach Boys came along.