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Inside the Archival Box: The First Long-Playing Disc

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Today is Record Store Day, a movement that began in 2007 in order to celebrate independent record stores and the unique culture of owners, employees, artists, and customers that help them thrive. In honor of the occasion, here’s another “Inside the Archival Box” post with a look at the production of the first LP!

Columbia Records released the first long-playing microgroove record, spinning at 33 1/3 revolutions per minute and holding about 23 minutes each side, in June, 1948. The 12-inch LP quickly became the standard format for commercial recordings, ushering in a new musical unit of consumption—the album.

The Recorded Sound Section of the Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division at the Library of Congress holds a collection of Columbia Records paperwork, which spans the years 1923 to 1964 and contains materials such as record label orders and copy sheets, press release information, recording studio job sheets, and cut-out project information (describing records to be cut out of the catalog).

Label paperwork for the first LP: a recording of the New York Philharmonic playing the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto (Box 121, folder 3, Columbia Records Paperwork Collection).

Inconspicuously described in the finding aid of the collection as “Box 120-121: ML 4001 to ML 4169, 1948 March-1949 April” are label orders related to that very first LP. With a matrix number—the serial number assigned to each side of a disc by the record company—of ML 4001, the first long playing disc featured the Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra of New York (better known today as the New York Philharmonic) under the baton of Bruno Walter, performing Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E minor with Nathan Milstein as the soloist.

The order form, accompanied by several early drafts of the center disc label, is dated March 1st, 1948, and is signed by H.F. Chmura—Columbia Records librarian Helene F. Chmura.

Along with the label order forms for ML 4001 are labels, forms, and several copies of a memo from April, 1948, regarding special demonstration albums consisting of four 12-inch discs and two 10-inch discs that were sent out to Columbia’s distributors in June of 1948 (Office Communication from Ken McAllister to Elmer Eldridge, April 1948, Box 121, folder 3, Columbia Records Paperwork Collection). Along with the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, these albums featured three other 12-inch LPs of a demonstration talk describing the advantages of the new long-playing vinyl record and classical music from the Philadelphia Orchestra under the baton of Eugene Ormandy, the Metropolitan Opera, and the New York Philharmonic conducted by Artur Rodzinski: Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue and Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor (with Oscar Levant at the piano), Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, favorites from Bizet’s Carmen, and ballet suites from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker and Khatchaturian’s Gayane. The two 10-inch discs featured Strauss waltzes and the music of Stephen Foster conducted by Andre Kostelanetz. 10,000 copies of each album were produced to be shipped in bulk to Columbia’s distributors by June 21st, 1948.

Record labels from the demonstration album, sent to Columbia’s distributors in June, 1948 (Box 121, folder 3, Columbia Records Paperwork Collection).

The album’s 12-inch discs were given blue labels and the 10-inch discs green, and both sizes had the sides of their labels clipped to indicate that the records were not for commercial sale.

On that June 21st date, Columbia Records president Edward Wallerstein announced the new technology at a press conference at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City. Wallerstein demonstrated the new record, and declared that Columbia was ready to sell the new format straight away.

LPs are first listed and lauded in the 1949 Columbia Record Catalog. The new record, which featured not only a finer groove but was also made of a sturdier material, vinyl, is described energetically in the catalog:

The revolutionary new Columbia Long Playing (LP) Microgroove Record plays up to 45 minutes of music on one 12-inch record, or approximately six times as much music as conventional shellac records. After more than a decade of preparation, the world’s greatest symphonies, concertos, tone poems and chamber music are now held in their entirety on one album-length record. Available, too, are sparkling collections of lighter music and popular songs, by leading artists. LP records are made of nonbreakable Vinylite, giving you in addition to the extended playing time the strength of Vinylite discs and their noise-free surfaces. Each LP record consists of scores of microscopically fine grooves, precisely controlled channels capable of capturing the most subtle nuances or most magnificent fortissimi.

In fact, Columbia was not the first record company to try to improve upon the limitations of 78 rpm discs. Wallerstein himself had shut down a failed attempt at a long-playing disc during his time at RCA Victor in the early 1930s. Many of the parts of Columbia’s successful LP existed as early as the 1920s: the material (vinyl), the speed (33 1/3 revolutions per minute), as well as several unsuccessful attempts at microgroove, including RCA Victor’s. It was the microgroove that ultimately proved crucial to the success of the long-playing disc, and it was the microgroove that Peter Goldmark and his team of Columbia (and its parent company, CBS) engineers perfected in the summer of 1947. A number of engineers and managers deserve credit for that breakthrough: Goldmark, who oversaw the project; Bill Bachman, an engineer and research director at at Columbia whose “brains and leadership” brought the project to fruition; and several other engineers named by Sean Wilentz in 360 Sound: The Columbia Records Story—Bill Savory, Ike Rodman, Jim Hunter, Vin Liebler, and Rene Snepvangers (pg. 129).

The introduction of the long-playing disc changed the way record labels, musicians, and consumers packaged, created, and listened to music. When Columbia first began manufacturing LPs, the term “album” referred literally to a collection of discs contained together in a group of bound sleeves. This was because longer musical works required multiple 78 rpm discs, the most popular recording format at the time. As LPs gained prominence, the term shifted meaning to refer to the songs or pieces recorded onto a single record—creating a new unit of consumption for the recording industry. Beyond allowing listeners to hear an entire symphonic work or extended jazz composition without having to change records every few minutes, LPs could fit a dozen pop songs between their two sides. Bands and musicians began to conceive and record full LPs rather than singles, and the music on these new albums was often unified around a common theme, musical concept, or narrative—enter the “concept album.” To this day the album remains the standard structure of commercial music releases, and vinyl itself has seen a resurgence of popularity in recent years (as a celebration like Record Store Day might suggest). Apart from the major addition of stereo sound in the late 1950s, the LP has remained relatively unchanged as a form of recording.

The Columbia Records Paperwork Collection is available for research in the Recorded Sound Research Center. You can explore the finding aid here. For more information about this collection or recorded sound research in general, don’t hesitate to get in touch with Recorded Sound reference librarians.

Happy Record Store Day 2019!

 

Looking to know more about Columbia Records? Here’s some further reading:

Wilentz, Sean. 360 Sound: The Columbia Records Story. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2012.

Marmorstein, Gary. The Label: The Story of Columbia Records. New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2007.

Comments (21)

  1. To schedule research in the Columbia records paperwork archive of the Library of Congress, call weeks in advance to have specific boxes sent over from the warehouse. Happy digging!

  2. This first LP, Columbia ML 4001 has become rare, especially in the original blue and white paper top open envelope. Columbia soon replaced it with the cardboard side open sleeve, in red, green and yellow.
    Classic Records released a vinyl repressing and a CD of ML 4001 in 1998, the 50th anniversary of the LP. HMV released a vinyl repressing in 2018, the 70th anniversary, of just 500 copies, which were given away at record stores in Britain.
    Perhaps SONY (the current parent company of Columbia) plans a special release for 2023 on the 75th.
    An original 1948 ML 4001 just sold on Ebay, December 2020, for $600.00 (!)

  3. From what I read above, there were only a couple of 10″ long playing microgroove records and only blue or green labels are mentioned or shown. Don’t see anything about one I have that has one that’s RED with gold lettering on a 10″ “Columbia Long Playing Microgroove” (under that – ” I found in an old album with ten sleeves of 10″ 78’s – EXCEPT for this one that doesn’t mention that it’s not a 78 (but is NOT a 78) nor does it mention a playing speed of 33rpm. It says it’s “NONBREAKABLE” and ” (LP 756 on one side & 756 etched vinyl near label) LP 757 on other side & 757 etched in vinyl near label)- )” below that on right side of center hole. On left side of center hole is “CL 6036”. Title is “CONGA WITH CUGAT ” Xavier Cugat with his ORCHESTRA. There are 4 Band pieces with vocal chorus on each side. The spaces between them are obvious, just like albums I had growing up in the 60’s, and after. I have never seen a 33 (long play) 10″ album before. Fine print under “LONG PLAYING (LP in circle) MICROGROOVE” says “Trade Marks Reg U S Pat. Off. Marcos (or Morcas orMarcas?) /registradas Made in U.S.A. Pats Pending Trade Mark Can you shed any light on this? How rare is this red label, this album? Thank you!

    • Thanks for your interest! The album and label are not rare. 10 inch and 12 inch LPs were both introduced in the late 1940s, and 10 inch LPs were phased out circa 1956. In the early days, the 12 inch format was typically used for longer symphonic works. The Cugat album you have collects eight performances originally issued on 78 rpm discs.

  4. The August 1948 Columbia LP catalog lists 85 12 inch “XLP” disks, ML 4001 thru 4085; 26 10 inch “LP” disks, ML 2001 thru 2026; 18 10 inch popular disks, CL 6001 thru CL 6018 and 4 10 inch juvenile disks JL 8001 thru JL 8004. The 10 inch disk series’ were phased out in the early 50s and the (XLP) 12 inch disks remained to become known as LPs.

  5. In reply to “Sandy Muzik”. The LP was initially released in both 10″ & 12″ sizes, the same as 78 RPM records. The larger disc was initially used only for longer classical releases by Columbia.

    There were plenty of popular and jazz records issued by Columbia in the 10″ size.

    The 10″ LP was retired in the US by the time the mid-50’s rolled around. Other nations held on to it longer.

  6. Another repressing of ML4001 from 1977, the 100th anniversary of Edison’s invention of recorded sound in 1877, is on Columbia’s Odyssey label (34604).

  7. Ive been buying every LP I find in the original release ML4001 – ML4085 for about 20 years now and have about 300 of them including 23 ML 4001. I have not found any this past year, searching cross country, they are getting scarce and collectors are paying up to $500 for ML4001. Happy hunting.

  8. Nice Write-up.Good Work.

  9. Now this is the kind of online article that demonstrates how the internet still has something to offer civilization. I was trying to sort out the beginning of recorded music, to listen to while I walk, but as someone born growing up with the compact disc (CD) that was just too daunting and full of sound tests and experiments; I settled on starting with the more familiar LP (1948).

    I managed last night to find a Nathan Milstein album to listen to that included tracks from ML 4001, and a Busch Chamber Players album that contained the tracks on ML 4002

    But really…to do it right, I need to click around on here and hopefully find more out about the ‘album’ of demonstration albums.

    When was use of the term album coined to colloquially refer to the LP itself? And what was played at the promo event @ the Waldorf, Astoria?? Appreciate the good effort from author(s) of this small part of the world wide web

  10. Hello! In 80s I’ve started my private investigation regarding the very very 1st LP. Basing on that I’d like to make some corrections to the original text of Mrs Amanda Jenkins as well as to your comments.
    1/ Considering place / date / subject of the LP’s birth we should refer to the press conference of Columbia in Hotel Waldorf Astoria in June 1948. LP – the new invention of Columbia – was presented to the public then. Obviously, it had to be preceded by earlier long non-public arrangements.
    2/ I hope we all can agree that the presentation in Waldorf Astoria should be considered as the birth of LP. If so, please, note as follows: where? in Waldorf Astoria; when? on 18.06.1948 /”a warm Friday afternoon”/; what? 101 LPs. The main source of the above info is The Billboard of 26.06.1948. The main but not the sole one.
    3/ On Monday, 21.06.1948, in Atlanta City there was an internal Columbia’s dealers convention.
    4/ “1949 Columbia record catalog” was not the first Columbia LPs catalog. The first one – according to my knowledge – was a folder covering 69 classical LPs. One LP ex Waldorf Astoria was missing there, so, it had to be printed some time before 18.06.1948. The 2nd earliest catalog was published in Billboard of 3.07.1948. It covered all 101 LPs ex Waldorf Astoria. The 3rd earliest LP catalog was Columbia’s Disc Digest of July 1948. It covered all 70 classical LPs ex Waldorf Astoria. For your info I got copy of each of the above documents, many years ago, from Mr Samuel Brylawski / Library of Congress…
    5/ In each of the 3 earliest catalogs 12″ and 10″ LPs were mixed and put in alphabetical order of composers.
    6/ So, what was the very very first LP? There were 101 chronologically first LPs born on 18.06.1948. They were organized in alphabetical order of composers. So, ML 4001 with Mendelssohn could not opened this list. It was ML 4002 with Adolf Busch and BACH!
    7/ All 101 LPs ex Waldorf Astoria can be found in Billboard of 3.07.1948. This initial Columbia catalog is repeated, with some additional my own elaborations, on http://www.historyoflongplay.com.

    Thank you for your comment!
    Best regards
    Jurek Dziuba

  11. In the 1940s, Milstein was very popular and Columbia thus gave him the honor of being “first” on ML 4001 even though that selection didn’t fit alphabetically. (The first 50 or so of the initial release were actually in alphabetic order except for ML 4001). This was confirmed in a telephone interview with Karen Fishman’s father in 2008. Karen is an archivist with the Library of Congress. Her father was the Northeastern sales manager for Columbia Records in the 1940s. He confirmed that ML 4001 was considered to be the first LP and was distributed with several ‘demonstration’ records to the dealers to start the sales campaign.

  12. Thank you, Phil, for your comment. Just trying to explain my point of view about priority ML 4002 before ML 4001… The child is born not in the moment of conception /for example/ but when it comes into the world. The star can be born not during fantasting rehearsals but when it performs to the public. And the LP was born in Waldorf Astoria when Columbia presented their new invention to the world. 70 classic LPs /from these 101 LPs/ were organized in the both alphabetical order of composers and numerical succession, too. There were 2 irregularities. I think ML 4071 with Khaczaturian / Tchaikowsky was added simply in the last moment. With ML 4001 something was wrong… It had to be foreseen as ‘4001″ with Albeniz or Bach on Side A. I had some correspondence with Mr Robert Dearling, author of Guiness Book of Recorded Sound. His personal source of information about 101 LPs ex Waldorf Astoria was some retired Columbia archivist. And he was not even sure that ML 4001 was presented there. As he remembered Tibor Varga, with Bach, was foreseen for Side A. But Tibor Varga could not be released on LP, for some reasons. I’d like to draw your attention to the 2 facts: 1/ In the Initial Columbia’s Catalog under Mendelssohn you will find ML 4032, firstly, and ML 4001 below it. So, it looks like ML 4001 was added in the last moment. 2/ Time of playing of ML 4001 is something like 11 / 13 minutes per side, respectively. So, it is very short. It could not be foreseen, originally, for the 12″ LP.
    Best regards / Jurek

  13. Most catalogs are in alphabetical order, so I don’t see that as a valid argument for Bach on ML4002. Both major books published about Columbia (Wilentz-“360 Sound” p.127 and Marmorstein “The Label” p.166) recognize ML4001 as the first LP.

  14. Thanks for your comment, again. Could you, please, send me these 2 mentioned pages to [email protected]? I would like to have a chance to comment them.

  15. One correction to my previous comment. The internal Columbia dealers convention took place on 21.06.1948 in ATLANTIC CITY – and not Atlanta City. Forgive me, please. By the way, the 75th LP’s birthday is coming. I mean 18.06.2023.
    Jurek

  16. Columbia selected Philco, the then-largest seller of radios in the U.S., to introduce the first consumer record players for the LP, but as indicated above it was Columbia that had developed the technology, not Philco. The first players in 1948 were apparently designed to connect to existing Philco radios. Integrated radio-phono units with two tone arms, one for 78s and one for LPs, didn’t appear until later. The marketing advantage Columbia had over its rivals was not only that it had developed the technology first, but that years earlier, Wallerstein had directed that new recordings be mastered not only in the 78 rpm format, but on 33 rpm 16-inch vinyl discs. Thus, when he finally had the technology ready for commercial release, he also had a large library of vinyl masters. True hifi was still a few years off in 1949, but these early LPs were a dramatic improvement over 78s. If you want to hear what some of these early LPs sound like, I have uploaded the five discs (10 sides) in the album Philco used to demonstrate the new technology in its first AM-FM radio/phonograph console, sold in 1949. (there was only one 10-inch disc in this issue, not two.)
    They, together with album art and labels can be found in the internet archive at https://archive.org/details/1949-philco-demonstration-album-front/1949+Philco+Demonstration+Album . The first two movements of the Milstein/Walter Mendelsohn Violin Concerto (from ML 4001) are included in this set.

  17. Correction: the last sentence above should read “The first movement of the…”.

  18. The story of the development of the LP is best told by Edward Wallerstein himself. You can find his story at http://www.musicinthemail.com/audiohistoryLP.html . As to the question of which is the “first” LP, you would need to specify first recorded, first cataloged, or first pressed. I have no information to add other than as Mr. Wallerstein says in his account, many if not all of the initial catalog of LP recordings had actually been mastered to vinyl years before the consumer product was ready in 1948, so the sequence in which the recordings were mastered may well have nothing to do with catalog numbers or dates of production.
    As to the demonstration album referenced in the post by Amanda Jenkins, I have a copy and have uploaded it to the internet archive at ( https://archive.org/details/1949-philco-demonstration-album-front/1949+Philco+Demonstration+Album ). The first movement of the Milstein/Walter recording of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto (ML 4001) is included as side 8 of this set.
    The big difference with the sound quality of the LP was that the technology available to the consumer could now almost match the best quality that could be recorded. When these early LP masters were made, microphones, amps, and almost everything else in the production chain was basically from the 1930s technology used to produce 78s. So though hi-fi and stereo recordings were still years away, the longer recording length and much quieter vinyl medium were what made for the leap in the technology of recorded sound actually available to the consumer. The next such leap would only come with the CD thirty years later.
    One last comment on early LPs. If you want to listen to these recordings on a modern sound system, you will have a problem. Even with vinyl there is a lot of noise in a linear record-playback scenario. To compensate, the RIAA equalization standard emphasizes highs in the recording and de-emphasizes them in playback. That is probably built into your playback equipment. But the RIAA standard dates from 1956. Before that, every record company had their own equalization curve. So in playback on modern equipment, you will not hear the sound as intended unless you apply some corrective equalization of your own.

  19. My first purchase of a 33lp was in 1949. Title, ‘Manhattan Tower’ By Gorden Genkins orchestra narration by Elliot Lewis. Played on a Webcor turn table with built-in speaker housed in a metal ‘box’. It also played 45 and 78 rpms.🇺🇲

  20. I am curious to know if any of the boxes would have the specs for 78 RPM label sheets as would be cut up into little circles (~3.5″ from 1923 to 1930, ~2.9375″ from then to 1937, and finally ~3″ to the end of the 78 format in 1958), how they were laid out, what the bleed standard would be and what the center spacing would have been. (Or for that matter, some 78 label sheet proofs.) I think the bleed may’ve been 3.25″ for a 3″ label, and text safety 2.8125″, but I’m not sure.

    (I already know they used 3.75″ bleed for a 3.5″ 45 RPM styrene label, spaced on 3.75″ centers; 3.875″ bleed for a vinyl 3.625″ 45 label, spaced on 4.25″ centers; and 4.25″ bleed for a 4″ LP label, spaced on 4.25″ centers.) I also know for many years, their die cutters for the label sizes would have added about 1/64″ to each size owing to loss of 0.5 – 0.7% of its original size when pressed onto either shellac if 78 or vinyl if LP.

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