Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Muzak and Vinylite 4 Ever

A commenter on this blog recently suggested that the upside of Muzak was that they created the vinyl record. This is not conjecture. In fact, according to Muzak’s own website, in 1933 they “began transmitting music over phone lines. Central studios played records – the first 33 1/3 rpm records and the first ever done on vinylite rather than shellac.” This is a claim to have made used and broadcasted the first vinyl records in existence. But extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. More here.

In 1948 Columbia records began marketing the 7-inch, 45-rpm vinyl discs we now refer to as 45s. In that era, they were described as being made of "vinylite." The first 45 rpm record players were actually developed by Philco in 1938; ten years earlier. But a WWII vinyl shortage and continuing success with shellac 78s. 

But these were not the first vinyl records. Let's back up. Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) what we call vinyl was first invented in 1838, by Henri Victor Regnault. It was invented again by Eugen Baumann in 1872. Neither  ever applied for a patent. So when Emile Berliner invented the record in 1888 and chose to use vulcanized rubber it wasn't because of patent infringement. There were two reasons. PVC is too soft for the mechanical playback devices  from that era. Their amplification was powered by friction. In 1913, Friedrich Klatte took did patent PVC but only in Germany. That's all beside the point, it wasn't until 1926 that Waldo L. Semon invented plasticized PVC.  This plastic had far greater utility, the Navy began using it as wire insulation. It's only after this date that we can seriously entertain vinyl records.
Sure enough it's only a few years later, in 1930 that RCA Victor vinyl long-playing records. these were marketed as "Program Transcription" discs. They were 12 inches in diameter and spun at 33.3 rpm. Roland Gelatt's book The Fabulous Phonograph, attributes the commercial failure of the device to the financial strain of the great depression. It was not a good time to debut a new media format with new playback devices. RCA's deluxe line of electric phonographs such as the RAE-59 were designed to handle playback. They were made of a plastic they called "Vitrolac" and it was made of PVC.  These were unquestionably the first vinyl records. You can argue that Muzak as an early adopter helped the format, but arguing that they were the fist to broadcast them requires that we believe no one else tried it for 3 years. Dubious.