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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North Sea fishing vessels to be Wärtsilä equippedMarine Log, October 30th
OCTOBER 30, 3014 – Two 78 m purser/trawler fishing vessels being designed and built at Karstensen Shipyard in Denmark will feature Wärtsilä main propulsion and control equipment. The ships have been contracted by Lunar Fishing, Peterhead, Scotland, and...Read more
Nov. 8 flute performance opens faculty recital season at Bemidji StateWalker Pilot Independent, October 30th
Bemidji State University flute instructor Susan Nelson will perform a faculty recital Sunday in the Thompson Recital Hall of the university's Bangsburg Fine Arts Complex. The recital will begin at 3 p.m. and is open free to the public. Since moving to...Read more
Dover museums offer free programs Nov. 1, 4 and 11Cape Gazette, October 29th
Visitors will hear 78-rpm recordings of this inspirational music played on authentic Victor Talking Machines, and explore how the Victor Talking Machine Company's Camden, N.J. factory led the fight to make the world safe for democracy. Hours are 9 to 4...Read more
Technology Brings Grandfather's Voice, War Stories Back To Life For San ...NBC 7 San Diego, October 29th
That's because the voice on the two, 78 rpm records is that of his grandfather, Ray. "I think I'm going to have to hold my breath," Matt says. "It's going to be emotional." Lt. Ray Skryja had just returned from serving in the European Theater of World...Read more
ACME Screening Room in Lambertville releases November scheduleHunterdon County Democrat, October 28th
Along the way, a kaleidoscope of technologists, historians and craftsmen from every facet of field recording – Grammy-winning producers, 78 collectors, curators from the Library of Congress and Smithsonian – provide insights and history. In Tennessee ...Read more
If you are not a fan of war porn, you might find 'Tommies' the perfect antidoteThe Conversation UK, October 28th
The nearest we get to any idea of bombardment is a controversial 78 rpm phonograph record released in 1918 by His Master's Voice. The question of whether it was faked is an enduring debate. The creator of Tommies, Jonathan Ruffle, had a stroke of...Read more
WMSE, DJ Dewey Gill keep big band music swinging — and, soon, digitalMilwaukee Journal Sentinel, October 26th
The 78-rpm records Gill plays and vinyl 33-rpm albums are "the difference between glass and plastic," said Crawford. "A milk carton (bin) of 78s weighs a hell of a lot." Special needles are required to play them because the grooves on 78s are "deeper...Read more
'The 78 Project' captures musical moments on antique formatMemphis Commercial Appeal, October 26th
In an update of Alan Lomax-style field recordings, they would seek out contemporary musicians to play songs using tools from the past: a vintage microphone, an authentic 1930s Presto direct-to-acetate disc recorder, and a blank 78 rpm lacquer disc...Read more