Born from the deep chagrin of a cello player

Peter Goldmark (Budapest, December 2, 1906 – Rye, New York, December 7, 1977)

"You know how it feels when you're making love and the phone rings every few minutes," said Peter Goldmark many years after the invention of "his" LP. “Well, that's how I felt one night when I listened to a new recording after lunch with friends in New York that they were very proud of.

It happened during the first part. There was a click, silence, some strange noises, and then the music continued. Again and again the music of Johannes Brahms was interrupted. I counted twelve sides for the four parts and eleven intermissions, eight of which were not foreseen by the composer.

So eight terrible moments in one rendition. I was enchanted by the music and at the same time the recording got on my nerves. Gritting my teeth, I asked my friends to play the concerto again, so that I could experience the horror again.'

The composition was Brahms's Second Concerto for Piano, conducted by Arturo Toscanini, with Vladimir Horowitz at the piano. The recording was a 78 rpm record and could contain no more than five minutes of music per side.

So for one concert you needed six records that had to be played all the time. The victim of the historic session was Peter Goldmark, a Hungarian engineer who worked for CBS in New York in 1945.

Anyone who follows his life course can only conclude that he was destined to develop the vinyl record. That LP was swept off the table by the small CD after 1982, and then gradually got back on its feet: year after year, the production of the time-honored vinyl record is increasing.

And there are reasons for that. Production is now running into the many millions again.

Goldmark himself was an excellent cello player. The interruption of the cello part in the Brahms concerto could not hit anyone harder. Goldmark was born in 1906 into a wealthy family in Budapest.

He was trained in piano and cello and writes in his memoirs that a string quartet played in his house one sunny day during the Civil War of 1919.

The windows were open when rebels passed on the Danube and signaled with a shot that the windows should be closed. But Goldmark's mother ordered the quartet to continue playing and remained seated.

To six-year-old Goldmark's astonishment, a second shot, right into the ceiling, didn't change that situation either. Only when the performance was over did his mother solemnly close the window.

Goldmark was very interested in film as a child. He studied engineering in Berlin and Vienna and in between invented the 'Knietaster', a mechanism with which you could activate the horn in your car with your knee, so with both hands on the steering wheel.

In 1933 he arrived in New York and from 1935 he worked for CBS, Columbia Broadcasting Corporation, on the development of color television.

During World War II, he designed a jammer for the government, an instrument no bigger than a shoebox that baffled enemy radar. Allied pilots were unfortunate in the bombing of Germany.

Goldmark's 'tools' also played a role in the Allied invasion of Africa and the Normandy landings.

After that memorable evening in 1945 with his friends in Manhattan, Goldmark worked on a record that could store at least twenty minutes on both sides. There was an awful lot involved. Goldmark attracted other experts for all facets.

And did not hesitate to take them away from the competition of RCA (Radio Corporation of America, headed by the mighty David Sarnoff).

You needed new material to begin with. The 78 rpm record was still made of shellac, a substance so brittle that the record could not be sent by mail. The new material eventually became polyvinyl chloride (PVC).

It had to be a material in which you could develop more and finer grooves – microgrooves – in order to get at least 20 minutes of music on one side. A slower speed — 33 1/3 rpm instead of 72 — was another trick.

The plate became stronger and lighter. To obtain a better sound quality, the playback head of the turntable was crucial: the quality of the needle, the balance of the head.

With industrial espionage, RCA's David Sarnoff got to know just about everything that went on in CBS' labs.

But Goldmark cooped up with its experts in a few rooms on the umpteenth floor of its Madison Avenue headquarters so that only a handful of people knew about the development.

One of his most important collaborators was undoubtedly René Snepvangers (1900-1967), an Antwerp native who had studied engineering in Ghent and had ended up in New York in 1939.

Snepvangers is highly praised in the annals of American sound engineers for his contribution to fine-groove recording. At a conference in 2007, the very first Snepvangers recordings were performed again. On June 21, 1948, the time had come.

Then the director of Columbia Records played the first album at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York. For a moment a war of speeds arose, when competitor RCA came out with a 45 rpm record. But in early 1950, RCA also adopted the 33 1/3 plate.

All the more so because Goldmark and Snepvangers published all their knowledge for the production of their LP in a book. Knowing full well that this was the ultimate trick to set a world standard.

Goldmark later patented more than 150 inventions. On November 22, 1977, President Jimmy Carter awarded him the National Medal for Science.

Two weeks later he was killed in a car accident. "Peter had more ideas in one day than any other person in his entire life," said CBS executive Frank Stanton.

For almost forty years the LP reigned. It wasn't until 1987 that more CDs than LPs were sold for the first time. To record a CD, a part of the tone that the human ear cannot perceive is simply cut away.

But that piece does help determine the sound. "Comparing a CD to an LP is like comparing astronaut food to a lavish meal," the vinyl fans say. So that vinyl production continues to rise steadily.

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