Yesterday, September 10, marked the 114th birthday of a man who helped introduce more people to music in the 20th Century than perhaps any other person despite never picking up an instrument or plugging in a microphone. Unless you're a serious chemistry geek, you've probably never heard of Waldo Lonsbury Semon, but you've almost certainly enjoyed the fruits of his labor. Semon is the inventor of the ultra-versatile chemical compound polyvinyl chloride, more commonly referred to among audiophiles as vinyl.
At least, he's the inventor of the elastic, durable version of vinyl that's now used to make just about everything. When Semon first started experimenting with synthetic rubbers back in 1926, polyvinyl chloride (PVC) existed already, but it was considered useless. Fresh off earning his PhD at the University of Washington, Semon went to work for BFGoodrich developing a new kind adhesive rubber that could be used to coat metal.
Semon's early efforts using reclaimed crude rubber were a failure, so he moved on to synthetic compounds including PVC, which was basically considered interesting trash back then. Because this early vinyl was stiff and brittle at room temperature, Semon heated it in a solvent with a high boiling point. The resulting jelly was elastic after cooling, and the chemist quickly realized he was onto something.
Soon, he perfected a process to plasticize the polymer. Though he never did figure out how to make it adhesive, he'd created a lightweight, durable plastic that could be molded into almost any shape imaginable. The first applications for his invention included shoe soles and wire coatings, and as World War II stretched rubber supplies to their limit, vinyl took off.
The first records made from vinyl appeared in early '30s, but they didn't sell very well. The standard format for records at the time was 78 rpm discs made from a shellac-based material, and no one was in a hurry to replace their expensive, vinyl-destroying turntables.
Vinyl did offer some significant advantages over shellac, however. Namely, it was lighter and more durable, not to mention cheaper to produce: PVC could essentially be created from seawater and petroleum.
After the war, new lightweight pickups and hard, durable styli in turntables made vinyl a practical commercial choice for records at last. Shellac records managed to stick around until the 78 format died out in the late '50s. By that time, competing record formats were mostly standardized into the now-familiar 12-inch LPs and 7-inch 45s.
So began the Golden Age of Vinyl, just in time for the birth of rock and roll. Almost overnight, black discs were spinning in juke boxes and bedrooms all over America and beyond.
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Even today, there's something magical about a vinyl record for music lovers. Tough as it is, unlike digital media, vinyl requires proper care in order to last. Perhaps that vulnerability to repeated playback and the elements is what appeals to those of us for whom sounds are precious. We're not just collectors, we're nurturing protectors! Or maybe we're just frustrated antiquers in concert tees. Only God can judge us.
Music's vinyl era ended sometime around 1988, when CDs began outselling records. The format never really went away, of course. Collectors were loath to part with their beloved hordes of albums, and many continue to insist that vinyl provides a richer, warmer sound than digital media. That may or may not be a complete load of horseshit, but who cares? The point is, dedicated musicians, collectors and hipsters keep vinyl en vogue today. It's not just the old stuff being spun lately, either. Check out Craig Hlavaty's excellent April cover story on the format's modest revival for more info on vinyl in the 21st Century.
As for Waldo Semon, he lived to witness the widespread adoption of his invention in industries from record production to indoor plumbing. He died in 1999 at the age of 100 with 116 patents to his name, four years after he was inducted into the Inventors Hall of Fame. Oh, and he did eventually come up with an adhesive rubber to coat metal -- more than 100 different kinds, in fact.
We can't be certain, but we'd have to guess that odds are good he owned Rubber Soul on vinyl at some point, too. If he didn't, he really should have. R.I.P., Waldo.