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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The Case of the Mystery RingingRadio World, February 9th
The specifications for a Class C line were 200–3,500 Hz, barely better than the frequency response of an acoustic 78 RPM record. It turned out that “for the time being” meant until the inauguration of the new satellite feed in 1980. From day one, the...Read more
Happy Accident: NZCA LinesClash Magazine, February 9th
Since the current fad of 'recorded' music began, it's pretty much impossible to separate music from the technology used to produce it and distribute it. From the running time of 78rpm records arguably creating our concept of the 'perfect' three minute...Read more
India's Salon Secularists Sing The Same Old SongSwarajya, February 9th
To make things worse, it is now coming from an utterly down-at-heels record player, a venerable 78 rpm manual gramophone. Even the logo is hardly traceable on the instrument. All this doesn't seem to bother the impresarios, who now insist that you...Read more
Record collection to be showcased at World War 1 era event WednesdayHastings Tribune, February 8th
Dr. Harry Salyards will share his personal collection of original 78 RPM records in a program that will include morale-boosting songs, stirring marches and songs used for propaganda. Selections will include “Let's All Be Americans Now,” It's a Long Way...Read more
DJ tour kicks it old school, spinning vinyl from resort to resortWhistler Question, February 8th
He's known for playing sets entirely with 7-inch, 45-rpm records. The records were introduced in 1949 by RCA as smaller, more durable counterparts to the 78 rpm shellac discs. There's something soulful about vinyl, Arkwell said. As a kid he spent...Read more
The DIY Musician: 1917 Film on 'The Making of a Ukulele,' Plus Free DIY Uke PlansGuitar World Magazine, February 8th
Hawaiian music legend Henry Kailimai appears at the end, performing with his own uke. Unfortunately, this was a silent film, so all we see is his cheery face and flailing fingers. The accompanying music in the film is edited music from old 78-rpm...Read more
Recent skull cinema featuresFairfield Daily Republic, February 8th
A voice somewhere booms “Faster!” and the speed of the album increases from 33 and a third rpm to 45 rpm. I quicken my pace, but when it goes to 78 rpm I fall and am flung off into a waiting giant Sony Walkman. The cassette door begins to slowly close...Read more
'Why the Mountains Are Black' aims to show music as a 'tool for survival'Los Angeles Times, January 28th
Well-known record collector Chris King, who curated the new collection of Greek village music "Why the Mountains are Black" for Jack White's label, Third Man Records. Well-known record collector Chris King, who curated the new collection of Greek...Read more