Goodbye Scratchy 78s, Hello Vinyl

The original Broadway cast of South Pacific – the first million-selling LP
The original Broadway cast of South Pacific – the first million-selling LP

by Ray Setterfield

December 2, 1906Peter Carl Goldmark who was born on this day enjoyed music and had learned in his youth to play the cello. So he was pleased when after dinner at a friend’s home his host decided to play a recording of the Second Piano Concerto by Brahms.

But Goldmark did not like what he heard. This was 1945 and in those days recordings were generally made on brittle shellac 10-inch (25cm) discs which were played using a steel needle at 78rpm. They were known universally as seventy-eights.

The quality of sound produced was thin and scratchy and the disc would often produce clicking noises, or worse. The other major problem was that a 78 would last for only about three minutes, so the concerto that Goldmark was listening to, for example, required a set of six 78s, the music being frequently interrupted for a change of record.

He believed he could produce a better system and did so by slowing the revolution speed of the turntable from 78 to 33 1/3 rpm, using vinyl instead of shellac to make the records, employing a groove width of only 0.003 inch (0.076 millimetre), compared to 0.01 inch for 78s, and ditching the steel needle in favour of a sapphire stylus.

Apart from the major improvement in sound quality, The equivalent of six 78s could now be compressed into one long-playing record.

And so the first LP was unveiled by Columbia Records at a press conference in New York’s Waldorf Astoria hotel on June 18, 1948. It featured a Columbia secretary playing piano, an engineer on violin, and Goldmark playing the cello.

Its success was modest but when an LP of the popular musical South Pacific was released later sales went through the roof. The album was number one from mid-1949 and throughout most of 1950 for a record 63 weeks, selling more than one million copies. LPs then went on to become the industry standard – until the arrival of compact discs in the 1980s.

A Hungarian, Goldmark was born in Budapest and studied at the universities of Berlin and Vienna, where in the 1920s he became fascinated by the possibilities of television. He hoped that he could one day work with John Logie Baird, but the television pioneer later turned him down for a job.

So in 1936, after emigrating to the United States, Goldmark joined Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) as chief television engineer. He became a naturalised US citizen the following year.

After attending a cinema screening of "Gone with the Wind" Goldmark was inspired to build a colour television, but there were ten million black and white receivers then in use and his system proved to be incompatible with them without an expensive adapter. The colour technology that he developed, however, continued to help scientific research for several more decades and was used in the lunar surface TV cameras during all the NASA Apollo moon landings of the 1970s.

Goldmark held a number of positions at CBS, including vice-president of CBS Labs, and president and director of research. Always working and innovating, he developed groundbreaking devices such as a scanning system used by the Lunar Orbiter spacecraft in 1966 to transmit photographs 238,000 miles (380,000 kilometres) from the Moon to Earth.

On a more down-to-Earth level, he developed the “Highway Hi-Fi” which meant drivers could play records in their cars. These first appeared in Chrysler vehicles in 1956. Goldmark also contributed to video cassette recording technology that led to the advent of the VCR. He is credited with more than 160 inventions and in November 1977, President Jimmy Carter presented him with the National Medal of Science.

Tragically, three weeks later Peter Carl Goldmark was killed in a car crash in New York. He was 71. His musical legacy, however, lives on. What has become known as “the vinyl revival” has been taking place in the Western world since about 2007 and is growing to this day. Not only have sales of vinyl records increased dramatically but record shops dedicated solely to vinyl are flourishing as music charts exclusively reflecting vinyl offerings are published.

This, of course, would have been music to Goldmark's ears.

Published: October 12, 2021
Updated: October 15, 2021

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