Before iTunes, CDs, 8-tracks, LPs, or even seven-inch EPs, 78s were the main medium for recorded music, so-called because they were played at 78 rotations per minute (rpm). Produced primarily by Victor, Columbia, Brunswick, and Capitol, 78s were first invented by Emile Berliner in the late 19th century.

At first, Berliner made the “plates,” as the records were called, out of celluloid and rubber-based materials, but in 1894 he switched to shellac, inspired by its transformative impact on the telephone industry. Early shellac 78s measured seven inches across, but by 1900 they were generally 10 or 12 inches in diameter.

For years, early radio stations in both the U.S. and Britain did everything they could to drive 78s out of the market. At the time, most radio stations provided listeners with live music—recorded music represented a threat to their business model. Thus, they discouraged their listeners from spending money on “canned” music. In England, the Musicians Union went so far as to require radio stations to pay the Union for every minute they played records instead of live music.

Thanks to these policies and the poor sound quality of 78s, records took a while to catch on. In the 1920s, Thomas Edison released a competitor to the 78, the Edison disc, which was much thicker (a full quarter-inch!) and featured better audio quality. But the Edison disc required its own expensive phonograph, and it was discontinued in 1929, the same year opera star Arturo Toscanini declared that he would never record anything because a record could not fully capture the beauty of his voice.

Even so, record companies released a wide variety of genres on 78s, from classical to pop to recorded animal noises. In fact, classical releases spawned the origin of the term “album”: because each side of a 78 could only hold about five minutes of music, hour-long symphonies had to be divided into six discs, which were bound together in something resembling a photo album. Seventy-eights were better suited to short pop songs, but this length limitation would prove to be the format’s biggest weakness in the decades to come.

Still, 78s gradually gained acceptance, helped along by the popularity of jukeboxes after the Depression. Then, in 1942, the American Federation of Musicians declared that it would not record anything that did not directly help the American war effort—shellac was scarce, and it was an important material during wartime. The moratorium on record manufacturing lasted until 1944. When production got back on track, though, much of the shellac used for new records was recycled, which resulted in lower-quality discs.

Even so, shellac was on its way out anyway. In 1948, Columbia released the 10-inch LP; when Victor responded with the 45 in 1949, the “War of the Speeds” was on, and the industry soon switched from shellac to vinyl, which was much more durable and allowed for thinner grooves and, thus, longer playing times per side...

In the mid-1950s, seven-inch vinyl singles began cutting into the popularity of 78s even more. Indeed, 1958 was the last year the 78 was the best-selling format in the United States; within five years, 78s were no longer produced in any Western countries, though foreign labels like EMI’s Indian division kept producing them for a bit longer.

Since then, the 78 rpm speed and format have been revived a few times as a promotional gimmick, but these records are generally pressed on vinyl rather than shellac. One example was the Sundown Playboys’ “Saturday Nite Special” in 1971.

The most collectible 78s today are those from the late ’50s, when 78s were less common and releases were often pressed on multiple formats. In the U.K., for example, Elvis Presley’s “A Mess of Blues” is highly collectible as a 78 because it is much easier to find as a seven-inch vinyl single.

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Recent News: 78 Records

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The Life of a Song: 'Hell Hound On My Trail'
Financial Times, July 3rd

He recorded, in two sessions in 1936 and 1937, a handful of 78rpm records that constitute a matchless contribution to the canon of delta blues: “Sweet Home Chicago”, “Love In Vain”, “Cross Road Blues” and, above all, “Hell Hound On My Trail”. This is...Read more

Metagenomic study of red biofilms from Diamante Lake reveals ancient arsenic ...
Nature.com, July 3rd

Isolation was done from 5 g of red biofilm sampled from Diamante Lake, which was inoculated in fresh WSJ broth and left for enrichment during 5 days (37 ºC; 160 r.p.m.). After incubation, 100 ?l of enriched media was plated on solid WSJ media and...Read more

Oak Orchard group gets park ready for summer concerts
The Daily News Online, July 2nd

18, welcome The Brick Band, the 78 RPM Big Band and The Boomers as newcomers. Returnees The Who Dats, The Jive Street Five and The Blind Leading The Blind are part of a musical mix of classic rock, jazz, ballads, big band and contemporary rock...Read more

Wavves and Cloud Nothings bask in common ground on their ripping joint LP
A.V. Club Denver/Boulder, July 2nd

“Nervous” opens like a post-punk song sped up to 78 rpm, giddy with anticipation of the power-pop payoff that lies at the end. Sometimes Williams and Baldi mirror each other so well that it's difficult to pinpoint where one ends and the other begins...Read more

'The Drowsy Chaperone': Wouldn't you like to get away?
Barnstable Patriot, July 2nd

The concept of “Chaperone” is that of a show within a show, as a past-middle-age man, called simply “Man in Chair” (played with shuffle, grace and humor by Simon Jones), sits in his apartment listening to a 78 rpm vinyl recording of an old musical from...Read more

FANTASY NASCAR PREVIEW Coke Zero 400 drivers to start
FOXSports.com, July 2nd

78 Chevrolet team. The encouraging sign has been this driver's performance on the big ovals this season. Truex has posted eighth- and fifth-place finishes at Daytona and Talladega during his rebound campaign of 2015. Those efforts boosted his career...Read more

'The Spoils Before Dying' Review: High Dive Into the Wacky Pool
Wall Street Journal, July 2nd

during the times your sight and hearing have been dimmed by laughter. Just the memory of Michael Sheen as the jittery gay-man-about-town Kenton Price in a spasmodic, 78-rpm dance with a cocktail shaker made it difficult to finish typing this sentence...Read more

New Jersey museum highlights early music industry
Centre Daily Times, June 27th

Regina produced a hybrid machine called Reginaphone that could play punched metal discs and 78 r.p.m. records." F.G. Otto & Sons was a very successful company that manufactured surgical instruments, medical supplies, early electric batteries and even ...Read more