What is a “78”?

Sound recordings as entertainment (and also enlightenment!) appeared first on rotating cylindrical records around 1890. Recordings on rotating discs soon followed. All disc records from the earliest days until about 1950 tend to be referred to as ’78s’. That is, they are often thought (one might say popularly supposed) to have been recorded at around 78 revolutions per minute, and therefore need that speed for correct replay.

Actually, 78 rpm as a nominal standard only began to appear around 1928. For the previous 30 years, a great variety of speeds had been used, which ranged from just under 60 rpm to around 120 rpm.

The first large -scale  production of disc records in the U.K. began in August 1898. They were a product of The Gramophone Company – a British company set up by a U.S. concern. They were 7″ (18cm) diameter and single sided. There was no label to begin with; the titling was etched & engraved into the middle of the disc, as above. Helpfully, most of these early ‘Berliner’ discs – Emil Berliner developed the flat disc – carry a date. The one above has 10 14 98 to the right of the centre hole.  This is 14th October 1898, written in the American fashion. Nominally, their speed was about 70 rpm, though it varied widely. One 1899 session made in Glasgow seems to have been made as low as ~58.5 rpm.


Competing companies soon appeared: Zonophone, Columbia, Nicole: all initially 7″ diameter and single sided. 10″ (25cm) discs appeared about 1902, and 12″ (30cm) soon after. To some extent, the bonus of extra playing time was traded off by employing a faster speed, for then, the discs were louder and of better sound quality.

By about 1910 Gramophone Co. discs ‘went’ at around 76 rpm – though much variation still occurred. 80 was also a very common speed, used by Columbia until about 1927. The Pathé concern made discs in many sizes – up to 20″ (50cm) – and the larger the disc, generally the higher the speed. These 20″ giants played no longer than their smaller counterparts, since they rotated at around 120 rpm – but they were far louder and were of course intended for playing in large halls and outdoors. They are very scarce these days.

By the mid-1920s, there was a consensus that around 78 – 80 rpm was a good compromise between sound quality & duration. Most of the discs illustrated here will play plausibly at about that speed.   Significant exceptions are noted.

“78s” remained in mass production until the late 1950s, until they had been entirely supplanted by the 33.3 rpm ‘Long Playing record’ and the 45 rpm ‘Extended Play’ and ‘single’ discs. However, 78s persisted into the early 1970s for specialised applications such as Sound Effects or Library Music discs: 78s were much easier to ‘cue’ and were far more robust than LPs. Purely “retro” 78 issues are still sometimes made  to this day.

However, this site centres on the period 1898 – 1926/7, because in that time the sound was recorded mechanically. That is, sound waves passed down a conical horn, and actuated a cutting point which embossed or engraved the vibrations on a suitable surface, usually a rotating wax disc. Though the system seems absurdly simple to us now, it held sway until the mid-1920s, when it was replaced by microphones, valve (tube) amplifiers and electromagnetic cutting heads. The fidelity of recordings was greatly improved, and the ‘modern era’ began.

So it seemed constructive to concentrate on the old mechanical period; for very often, early examples of a new Art are the first to be written off as inherently obsolete.

It is a supreme irony that the eye is very tolerant of the fascinating material on, for example, early ciné film of ~1910. These may be black and white, have no sound track, be scratched & damaged – and are often shown far faster than they should be. Yet we can easily see what they portray. But the ear is far less forgiving. A disc of nearly 120 years ago, mechanically recorded, scuffed and worn, and played nearly half as fast again as it was recorded, is pretty heavy going to the human ear!

Still, many of them reflect vital aspects of their contemporary culture. Yet they are all too often neglected by modern critics, historians and sociologists. They deserve a lot more serious study and analysis, quite apart from the entertainment value many of them still possess.

What, for example, would become of an archaeologist who declined to study potsherds of impeccable stratigraphy, on the grounds that they were worn and weathered, and above all came from a pot that was broken? 8^)

British disc records of the 'Acoustic' Era.