The earliest recordings made with Thomas Edison’s phonograph in 1877 required no electricity. To record, musicians directed their performances into a large, funnel-shaped horn. The narrow end of this horn was attached to a needle that recorded the sound vibration by cutting a groove into a wax cylinder as it was rotated by turning a crank. To play the sound captured on that wax cylinder, this process was reversed.
Though the improvements to this process have been many, the basic concept of making “records” in the pre-digital era continued to involve capturing sound in the form of indentations on a material surface. What did change over the course of time was the surface on which records were made.
Wax cylinders were replaced by flat shellac discs. Shellac however was hard, heavy, and, worse, breakable. Vinyl, the more flexible compound still used for records today, was introduced in the 1930s.
With the introduction of vinyl, fierce competition within the recording industry led to two closely timed technological advances in the late 1940s. First, in 1948, Columbia Records introduced the “Long Player,” a 12-inch record that rotated at 33 ⅓ rpm and held almost three times as much music as previous records, roughly 18 minutes per side. The following year, Columbia’s main competitor, RCA Victor, released a new 45 rpm 7-inch record. Though it held only 4 minutes per side, RCA also promoted their new, small and portable playback system that automatically switched between records that the user could stack on its spool. Though this 45 rpm 7-inch, which became known as the “single,” and the 12-inch “LP” were initially marketed as direct competitors, the different records led to different uses. Teenagers in particular were drawn to the 45 rpm record. Many among the teen demographic listened to “Top 40” radio, on which they could hear their favorite songs in regular rotation. With RCA’s record player, teens could be just like their favorite DJs, playing individual songs by different artists one after the next. The LP would find its natural radio format some years later, with the rise of FM radio and with a somewhat older audience, and by the late 1960s, the LP was the format most recording artists had in mind when they entered the studio. Some artists would go so far as to not release singles at all.
New technologies prosper only when they become meaningful to users. The stories of how the single and the LP became meaningful in different ways in American music culture provides a unique glimpse of American life in the mid-20th century. This lesson explores the technology of “records” and what it meant to the people who consumed them. Students will learn how a record works and why a needle on a disc can record and play back music. Moreover, students will investigate how these technological changes had far reaching effects, even in the domestic setting. Finally, this lesson follows the 45 rpm and LP record through the airwaves of both AM and FM radio, using excerpts of broadcasts by the pioneering DJs Alan Freed and Tom Donahue and investigating how the possibilities and limitations of each medium and their respective places on the radio dial provide a framework for historical analysis.