Spinning Vinyl Records with Peter Goldmark

BY Christian Sager / POSTED April 24, 2014
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I wonder what Peter Carl Goldmark would think if he were alive to know about a Record Store Day dedicated to celebrating the 33 ⅓ rpm long-playing phonograph record that he invented? It’s possible he wouldn’t be surprised, since former CBS executives referred to him as “some kind of genius” who always told you the “gospel.” Maybe Goldmark knew that even after other media like compact discs and mp3s had taken over the media industry, his vinyl record would remain popular with enthusiasts.

I remember watching an interview with Thurston Moore once, where he preached his devotion to vinyl. Moore’s theory was that every time you listen to a record, the needle digs a little more into the grooves, creating these tiny imperfections that make the sound slightly different with each play. In other words, vinyl records are more organic than other audio formats. Maybe that’s how Goldmark considered it as well.

Goldmark was born in Budapest, Hungary on December 2, 1906. He played cello as a kid but decided to be an engineer instead of a professional musician after he fled to Austria in 1919 to escape the Hungarian communist revolution. He studied there until graduating with a doctorate in physics 1931. Originally working for the British radio company Pye Radio, Ltd., he relocated to New York City with the oncoming threat of World War II. He failed to get hired at the Radio Corp. of America (RCA), but in 1936 CBS recognized his genius and brought him aboard.

Under the leadership of executive Bill Paley, Goldmark and a team of eccentric inventors worked in a lab, hidden away from the rest of the company. A future CBS research center president described Goldmark as a “crazy Hungarian inventor, somewhere in the building, and no one really kept track of what he was doing.” Remarkably, what he was doing was developing a color television set and the concept of video recording. His team created the field sequential system used to send primary colors to the viewers’ eyes. Debuting in 1940, Goldmark’s television made use of the red, green and blue (RGB) spectrum that we still use for color processing of digital images today. Unfortunately, not many black-and-white television owners accepted Goldmark’s design as the new color standard and RCA took the lead with another system more compatible with then existing televisions.

Other colleagues described Goldmark as “pensive” and “part child and part tyrant.” Despite these disagreeable personality traits, CBS invested more than $3 million in his projects over the years. Before he turned from television to music, Goldmark even helped design a jamming device to interfere with German radar during World War II. CBS also used Goldmark’s research center to develop a secret satellite-reconnaissance program to spy on the Soviet Union from space.

By 1946 Goldmark turned his ingenuity to records. He loved classical music, but hated having to flip his 10-inch, 78-rpm shellac discs every few minutes. So his team tested different materials at different speeds on the phonograph and found an ideal with a vinyl compound played at 33 ⅓ rpm. These records used much smaller grooves at only 0.0003 of an inch (0.076 millimeter), allowing him to multiply the number of grooves, lengthening the playing time per side considerably. The advance revolutionized the music industry, creating the “album” as a format for mass-marketed pop music.

Shortly after the success of the LP, Goldmark (the crazy, hidden inventor) was promoted to vice-president at CBS. This didn’t slow down his productivity one iota. Co-workers described his drive as almost detrimental, excluding everything else, including his multiple wives and children. In 1950 he built a scanning system so photographs could be relayed from the Moon to the Earth. He turned back to televisions and improved his own design by placing phosphor dots directly on the inside surface of the device’s tube. Not long after that accomplishment he produced the Electronic Video Recording (EVR), the predecessor to VHS. His idea was that families would order high-resolution film EVR film cartridges to educate themselves. Goldmark used the “sex life of grasshoppers” as his demonstration video to clients.

In his later years, Goldmark turned his attention to America’s urban problems and believed a telecommunications network using his EVR system would enhance the education and cultural lives of all citizens. He died in 1977 before he could use his technology to affect social change. Still, one could argue that the advent of the LP alone distributed new music and ideas to places they’d never have been available before, triggering both the civil rights and anti-war social movements.


 

SOURCES

  • Brewster, Mike J. “Peter Goldmark: CBS’s In-House Genius.” BusinessWeek Online. 8/26/2004.
  • Carey, Jr. Charles W., “Peter Carl Goldmark.” American National Biography (From Oxford University Press). 2010.
  • Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica. “Peter Carl Goldmark.” Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed online 4/24/2014. http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/237886/Peter-Carl-Goldmark
  • Hajdu, David. “The iPod Blues.” New Republic. Volume 230. Issue 11. 3/29/2004
  •  “At the End of the Rainbow.” Time. Volume 56. Issue 23. Page 54. 1950.
  • “The Genius at CBS.” Time. Volume 91. Issue 25. 12/20/1968
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