History 101: From Phonograph to Laser Disc in 100 Years

History has given us some interesting options when it comes to sound and video recordings. From the phonograph cylinder to shellac and then vinyl discs, read by means of stylus and eventually lasers, mankind has tried just about everything to reproduce the human voice and image.

I love collecting rare records and movies and so have many unusual examples of content and formats. Today, I thought we’d look at some of my collection with a focus on the format angle.

Let’s start with the medium that we are likely most familiar with. It started around the 1880s and is enjoying a renaissance today. Vinyl Records are an analog sound storage medium in the form of a flat disc with an inscribed, modulated spiral groove. Records are generally described by their diameter in inches (12-inch, 10-inch, 7-inch) and by the rotational speed in revolutions per minute (rpm) at which they are played (​33 13, 78, 45).

At first, the discs were commonly made from shellac, perhaps like this example from 1948:

Little Toot from Walt Disney’s “Melody Time”

I’m almost certain that the above example is shellac as it is thicker and heavier than modern vinyl discs. Starting sometime in the 1940s polyvinyl chloride became common, hence the name vinyl. Both materials would have overlapped in use for a time.

Little Toot is a 10-inch record played at 33 13 rpm. It should be noted that most commonly this size of record would be played at 78 rpm. But exceptions do appear.

Over the lifespan of this format, we have seen black vinyl, colored vinyl, and picture discs that display an image right on the record instead of on a paper sleeve. You can see an example of colored vinyl in the first image. It comes from this unusual exception to almost every vinyl rule:

Just 6″ in diameter

Black vinyl? No, it’s yellow! 7-inch size played at 45 rpm? No, it’s 6-inches in size and is played at 78 rpm! Oh, how crazy the record companies were in 1961.

One constant seems to be the beloved and very popular 7-inch size played at 45 rpm:

Who remembers the hole?

Who remembers collecting just one favorite song on this size of record? And how about those ‘B’ sides? And you remember what you needed to play these, don’t you?

Don’t lose it !

The most collectible thing in the history of vinyl records is arguably the cover (and inner sleeves) because of the space given for visual expression, especially in the case of the 12-inch format. But even the smaller 10-inch covers gave plenty of room for visuals:

To add to my earlier supposition, this record could be an example of first-generation vinyl as it’s tooted (if you will) as being ‘unbreakable’ (in normal use, so don’t use it as a Frisbee) due to its SUPERFLEX design.

Now let’s move on to the history of the next format that almost everyone has likely long forgotten! Except me, the Compulsive Collector, who buys, researches, and displays just about anything:

Late to the race

The Capacitance Electronic Disc (CED) is an analog video disc playback system developed by RCA, in which video and audio could be played back on a TV set using a special needle and high-density groove system similar to phonograph records.

First conceived in 1964, the CED system was widely seen as a great idea but soon fell victim to poor planning, various conflicts with RCA management, and several technical difficulties that slowed development and stalled production of the system for 17 years. I remember renting movies in this format along with the player. You would push the entire thing, cover and all, into the player, flick a switch, and then pull the cover out which would leave the disc inside, ready to play. Push play and watch half the movie. At the halfway point, you’d have to reinsert the cover, flick the switch, pull everything out, flip it over, push it back in (I’m getting tired!), flick the switch again, pull out the cover, and push play. Simple. I can’t imagine why this format didn’t catch on.

By the mid-80s it had already been made obsolete by laser videodiscs as well as Betamax and VHS video cassette formats. The ability to record onto the tape formats is what really killed any type of solid disc format.

So let’s move on to the history of one such solid disc format, the Laserdisc:

Blasting onto the scene

LaserDisc (abbreviated as LD) is a home video format and the first commercial optical disc storage medium, initially licensed, sold and marketed as MCA DiscoVision in the United States in 1978. Unlike the formats we’ve already covered that used some sort of stylus to play back the content, this format utilized a 780 nm wavelength semiconductor laser.

My Toy Story LaserDisc is an example of the Constant linear velocity (CLV) version, or Extended Play disc (60-64 minutes per side), which offered simple playback on all but the high-end LaserDisc players incorporating a digital frame store.

Although the format was capable of offering higher quality video and audio than its consumer rivals, those pesky upstarts VHS and Betamax, LaserDisc never managed to gain widespread use in North America. This was largely due to the high costs for the players and the video titles themselves and the inability to record TV programs. Interesting how this last flaw seems to be the main reason so many formats failed!

My Toy Story LaserDisc also brags a Letterboxing format. This is the practice of transferring film shot in a widescreen aspect ratio to standard-width video formats while preserving the film’s original aspect ratio. The resulting videographic image has mattes (black bars) above and below it; these mattes are part of the image.

Shiny but flawed

I love the look of these discs but will never shell out the money to buy a vintage player! So this disc will forever be for display only.

And that’s our History 101 for today! I hope you enjoyed our brief look through the history of the formats that have brought us music to soothe the savage breast and images to entertain the discerning eye. Which formats have you had experience with?

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