On June 21, 1948 Columbia Records introduced the 33 1/3 rpm microgroove record album. In many ways this invention gave birth to the modern pop album. Of course, all kinds of albums were (and still are) released as vinyl records, but pop albums were the first to be structured around the format. The length, number and order of songs were designed around the 22 minute per side limitation.
Prior to the invention of the 33 1/3 LP albums were on 78 rpm records. The 78s could only hold approximately 3 -5 minutes of recorded material per side. In fact the word “album” comes from the fact that collections would be issued in multi-disc sets that were housed in the pages of a binder – similar to a photo album. However, the name stuck after Long Play (LP) records were introduced commercially.
But Columbia’s was not the first 33 1/3 rpm LP. RCA Records had made an attempt in the early thirties with a 33 1/3 rpm large groove album. Ultimately these were a failure due in large part to the poor economy during the depression – the players for these records were very expensive. The albums also suffered from poor sound quality. Like 78 rpm records, they had large grooves and were manufactured using a shellac base, which made them brittle.
Columbia set out to solve these problems and began developing new technology in 1939. By 1948 they had successfully produced an affordable and consumer-friendly playback machine. The rest, as they say, is history.
5 Fun Facts About the 33 1/3 LP
1. George Harrison’s sixth studio solo album was titled Thirty Three & 1/3, both after the vinyl record and his age at the time.
2. The first 12-inch microgroove 33 1/3 LP issued was the Columbia Masterworks Set ML4001. This set contained the Mendelssohn Concerto in E Minor for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 64 played by Nathan Milstein with the Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra of New York conducted by Bruno Walter.
3. The first 10-inch microgroove 33 1/3 EP issued was Frank Sinatra’s The Voice of Frank Sinatra.
4. Original 12” LPs played for 45 minutes total – 22.5 minutes per side. In 1952 Columbia introduced 52 minute extended-play albums.
5. In 1949 RCA introduced the 45 RPM microgroove 7” record as competition for Columbia’s LP These 45s had a maximum playing time of 8 minutes, making them more ideal for shorter works. 45s soon became the standard for singles, while the 33 1/3 RPM became the standard for full-length albums.