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.
Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)
Sun Records Discography
Association of Vogue Picture Record Collectors
The Remington Site
Clubs & Associations
Other Great Reference Sites
Most watched eBay auctions
Recent News: 78 Records
Source: Google News
South Ogden woman, sister act wowed Hollywood with harmoniesEl Estándar, March 10th
The youngsters also performed on a number of radio shows and in clubs, and made one 78 rpm record, "Swinging on a Star." Raymond Rounds, one of Doris' three sons, remembers hearing his mother's stories about Hollywood. It wasn't the dreamy fairy tale ...Read more
Vic Godard – Thirty Odd YearsThe List, March 10th
Such pre-punk, post skiffle roots are acknowledged on the vintage vinyl stylings of the CDs themselves here, with the Gnu label looking like classic purveyors of 78RPM platters. The results of Godard's revolt into style, with a band made up of a jazz...Read more
Volkswagen Passat a fuelish family sedannwitimes.com, March 9th
Indeed, a slightly modified 2014 diesel Passat, driven for maximum fuel mileage, set a Guinness World Record of nearly 78 mpg. Plus, the In comparison, the peak torque in a 2014 Camry with four cylinder is 170 foot-pounds at a high 4,700 rpm. It's...Read more
Forget Your Troubles With Songs of HollywoodNew York Times, March 9th
There we were huddled happily on the living room couch surrounded by old movie magazines and 78 r.p.m. records, transported to a safe, all-singing, all-dancing show business heaven just a step beyond the rain. The next program in the American ...Read more
The 78 Project seeks to recapture sounds of a bygone eraCharleston Gazette, February 26th
Lavinia Jones Wright (left) and Alex Steyermark, producers of The 78 Project, make a field recording on a 1930s-era 78 rpm recording machine. The pair is traveling the country recording famous and not-so-famous artists performing traditional music...Read more
Gramophone and radio collector: 'Throwing away records is sacrilege'thejournal.ie, February 23rd
Pat Herbert has collected vintage radios and gramophones over the pat 60 years and it all started when he couldn't bear to see the waste created when people threw out 78 RPM records in London in the 50s. “Vinyl was just coming in in the 50s and people ...Read more
That Old-Time Sound, Captured Live In The MomentOPB News, February 17th
He used a Presto recorder, a machine that captures sound by etching it directly onto a 78 RPM acetate disc. Wanting to tap into the America that Lomax was recording, Wright and Steyermark went out and found some antique Prestos of their own. For the...Read more
Bringing back the shellac 78RPM with Duke SpecialNewstalk 106-108 fm, February 14th
However, Duke brought the show's audience back to an even earlier era of recorded music, that of the 78RPM shellac which was the standard way of experiencing recorded music from the late 19th century until they ceased general manufacture in the mid ...Read more