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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2015 Mitsubishi Mirage – minor update announcedASEAN Automotive News, October 1st
No changes to the powertrain either – the 3A92 1.2 litre DOHC three-pot unit continues on with its 78 PS at 6,000 rpm and 100 Nm at 4,000 rpm output. The update consists of technical improvements and new features. Additional sound insulation and a new ...Read more
2015 Ford F-150 tech: Steel joins aluminum in cutting weightDetroit Free Press, September 30th
• The 2.7-liter Ecoboost V6 engine that will power the most fuel-efficient F-150 will be a $495 option. It will cost $1,100 less than the 5.0-liter V8. • The 2.7-liter V6 produces 375 pound-feet of torque at just 3,000 rpm and can tow 8,500 pounds...Read more
2015 MLB draft: Mock 1.0Through The Fence Baseball, September 30th
His fastball had a spin rate of 2600 RPM, which is elite at any level. He is still learning how to pitch instead ... He adds a 78-82 mph slider and shows a good feel for a change-up, but his secondary stuff still needs some refining. His raw stuff...Read more
Dissecting the HSB LineupSF Weekly, September 30th
He dug deep into his roots (and his 78 RPM vinyl collection) for his first solo album, Folk Singer Vol. 1. We're talking classic tunes like "Midnight Special" and "Stewball," along with way old-school blues from the likes of Memphis Slim and Richard...Read more
News from you local community radio stationArdrossan and Saltcoats Herald, September 30th
The turntable would be selected at a speed of either 33 1/3 or 45 revolutions per minute (RPM) – or in Archie's case 78RPM. Sorry Archie I couldn't resist throwing that in! A pick-up arm would be placed on the record and you could hear the song play...Read more
Complete analysis: DoverYahoo Sports, September 29th
He led 78 laps in the AAA 400 and his second-place finish gives him an average finish of 3.3 through the first three races of the Chase. As has been the case this season, speed was not an issue for the No. 2 team as Keselowski was the fastest on...Read more
You're On Notice, Dawg! Week 6Dawg Sports, September 28th
I'm not asking you to drag it out so it sounds like you're playing a 78 LP at 45 RPM, but slowing the tempo down to a manageable singing speed would be much appreciated by this Bulldog fan. Also, God created fermatas for a reason. It's not a crime to...Read more
Unclutter Your Mind: The Power Of Getting Rid Of ThingsForbes, September 26th
It's one thing to play Frank Sinatra tunes as a prelude to romance, but playing a 78 rpm disc of “Someone To Watch Over Me” by 'Ol Blue Eyes on a hand cranked phonograph slayed them every time. Then I got married, had kids and eventually had to move ...Read more