The 78 Rpm

- jim Young

"If you can say, 'It's a braw bricht moonlicht nicht',

Then yer a'rict, ye ken." - Sir Harry Lauder, G. Grafton and W. Cunliffe

Many young people today may have never heard a “78 rpm record” played, but they will at least likely know what it is. Oddly enough, their great-grandparents, who actually listened to them on the other hand, probably wouldn’t have known what you were talking about in their day if you called it that.

78s were just known as “records” until after World War II when there was a need to distinguish between them and the newly introduced 33 ⅓ rpm record. Shortly after, came the 45 rpm and the elusive 16 ⅔ rpm records.

Each has their own story but my story today is about the old 78 rpm records.

Fun Facts About The 78 rpm

Early 78 rpm records spun at a wide variety of speeds until 1910 when they generally rotated between 78 and 80 rpm. 78.26 rpm was finally chosen as a standard in 1925 when motorized phonographs were introduced.

Just like their speeds, 78s came in a variety of sizes of 5, 6, 7, 10, 12, 14, 16 and a whopping 21 inches in diameter. Wow! That’s larger than an extra large pizza! The most common sizes were 10” which would play for 3 minutes and 12” which would play for 4 to 5 minutes. Those were the size of a small and medium pizza respectively.

78 rpm records were produced in a variety of sizes from 5" in diameter to 21"

Most 78s were made of shellac although vinyl, which would become the standard for 33 ⅓ and 45 rpm in later years, was sometimes substituted when supplies of shellac were limited during the war years.

Prior to using paper labels, the label for the 78 was etched right into the record.

Many early 78s were recorded on only one side. 

Early 78s only had one song on the record.

My father used to tell me that as a young boy, he would sometimes take a wooden match, break off the head and split one end into two to form a "Y" in the match stick. He would take the unsplit end and jam it into the needle of the gramophone and then place the split ends into two different grooves on the record.

The vibration in the record carried through the split ends of the match into the needle and out the horn that was used as the speaker, playing 2 tracks at once and creating an echo effect. Perhaps if my father had experimented with this concept for more than his own amusement, he might have been credited with the invention of “stereo”.  

When Did They Quit Making 78 rpm?

A quick Google search will tell you that the last 78 rpm records were made in 1959. This is a perfect example of the folly of relying on Google for research unless done properly. 

Many sellers on Ebay will be quick to call “bullshit” on this as they peddle their “Beatles Records” that were released on 78 rpm in India. The Beatles weren’t even known as the Beatles until 1960.

A more informed research will tell you that, although 78s had faded from the scene by 1955 they were still being produced outside the US and in fact many children’s records were still being released on 78 in the US as late as the 1970s.

The Wind Up Gramophone

When I was a young boy I spent a lot of time on my own. My siblings were all sisters and we lived in the country with no other children nearby. So I spent the bulk of my indoor time either in my room or my father’s workshop.

My father’s workshop housed the oil furnace that heated our house. The only light source behind the furnace was a dim reflected light that would reach around the furnace from the single 100 watt bulb that lit my father’s workbench. This dark, dingy cubby hole was used to store old, forgotten pieces of furniture and a few boxes of memories, none of which were good for much but were still considered too good to be discarded.  

This became my sanctuary. Beside an  old easy chair with a broken spring stood an old wind up gramophone that I was attracted to. We had just one 78 rpm record that remained on the platter ready to play whenever the mood struck.

I had to be in a brave mood to play it however. The wind up handle on the right had a broken gear in its mechanism. After sufficiently winding the crank I would grimace as I cautiously released the handle. If I had managed to catch one of the intact teeth on the gear, all was right with the world. But if the luck of the draw aligned the handle with the single broken tooth, the mechanism would release, causing the tightly wound spring to spin the handle backward with what seemed like a lot more than 78 revolutions per minute. When I wasn’t quick enough to pull my hand out of harm’s way, the wooden handle would crack my knuckles harder than the downswing of the edge of Mr. Wood’s ruler in typing class.

But when I was lucky, the record would start to spin, I would drop the needle into the first groove and listen to Harry Lauder sing “A Wee Deoch And Doris” on the single sided ¼” thick record. Yes, it sounded a wee bit scratchy but for the next 3 minutes I was in heaven as I tried to decipher the words to this old Scottish song that was sung in the Celtic language of Gaelic.

The better part of an otherwise boring Saturday might find me tempting fate as I wound the handle again and again to listen to this same record over and over with the dedication of a teenage girl in the 60s listening to her first Beatles 45 rpm.

Yes, my friends… Those were the days.

- 30 -


Do you have some pictures or memories of the proverbial “good old days” that you would like to share? If so, please send them by clicking on this link, Those Were The Good Old Days.

This early Frank Sinatra "Box Set" contained 8 songs on 4 78 rpm records. 


Stuff others read

It's Time To Tighten Your Belt

Maybe We Should Be Looking At The Bigger Picture (Cavalier For President)