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.
Interviews & Articles
I have about 20,000 records in my collection at my house and another 7,000 at another house. I keep them in a room in the basement… [more]
Ted Staunton was born in England, but now lives an active retired lifestyle in Vancouver, Canada. Ted has an outstanding collectio… [more]
When I was a jazz DJ in Philadelphia, Blue Note was always my favorite label. Naturally I had a lot of jazz-musician friends, and … [more]
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I was a Hollywood kid. My father was a TV and radio editor in the San Fernando Valley, and he allowed me to do my first writing to… [more]
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Last Shop Standing – The Rise, Fall And Rebirth Of The Independent Record ...Audiophile Audition, May 23rd
The narrative examines the influence of rock and roll (which included 78 rpm) that spurned the mania for vinyl. Of course, Elvis Presley (the British were anticipating a country star) was the catalyst. Then the sixties and The Beatles continued the craze...Read more
2014 Mitsubishi Attrage Revealedautoevolution, May 21st
Power comes from the now familiar 1.2 litre 3A92 three-cylinder MIVEC unit, which offers 78 PS at 6,000 rpm and 100 Nm at 4,000 rpm. Transmission choices comprise of a CVT or five-speed manual serving as a standard unit. It's not yet clear if the...Read more
Chevrolet Enjoy MPV launched in India - Wuling basedASEAN Automotive News (blog), May 20th
In India, the rear-wheel drive Chevy Enjoy is available with 'Smartech' engines – a 1.4 litre petrol unit (104 PS, 131 Nm, 13.7 km/l claimed) or a 1,248 cc commonrail turbodiesel with 78 PS and 188 Nm of torque from 1,750 rpm. The latter is claimed to...Read more
Eagle County Property TransfersVail Daily News, May 20th
Ronald Richter to RPM Realty, 4/10, Lot 1440, Charter at Beaver Creek, $705,000. Karen Nulle to Dara Anselm, 4/10, Lot 1, High .... Eugene G. McRae to Jeffrey M. Hulse, 4/26, Lot 78, Miller Ranch Fil. 2, $273,000. J Foley LLC to Glen R. Miller, 4/26...Read more
Sitton proud of little-known tube industryWisconsin State Journal, May 19th
Sitton has plenty of other non-tube items, too, like an old Philco radio with a 78 rpm record changer and a microphone on top; an 1883 Edison-effect lamp; a 3-inch-long 1915 range-finder for ships cannons; a portable CD radio; an early battery...Read more
Whicker: Kings tough to please and beatOCRegister (subscription), May 17th
Some of that is the nature of this 60-minute, 78-rpm game, played with an unsteady puck on changing ice. There will always be bad shifts, wrong decisions, honest mistakes. Kings coach Darryl Sutter reprimanded those who brought him the ... Click Here...Read more
Lexingtonian-founded Vandaveer fills new album with killer songs about murderLexington Herald Leader, May 16th
"These guys would actually make 78 rpm acetate records on the spot," Heidinger said. "So they invited amazing artists like Richard Thompson, Loudon Wainwright III and Rosanne Cash to come out and participate. And we were lucky enough to do one...Read more
Much-loved entertainer Dennis of Grunty Fen goes digitalEly Standard, May 16th
“I can't imagine what Dennis or Pete would have made of hearing themselves on an iPod although I'm fairly sure Dennis would have compared it unfavourably with the 78 rpm Mantovani records he used to charm rats out of their nests.” Every week for 17...Read more