Phonograph disc records were developed by Emile Berliner, whose earliest discs, first marketed in 1889 in Europe, were 5 inches (13 cm) in diameter. In the United States in 1894, Berliner started marketing single-sided 7-inch records. Berliner’s records had poor sound quality compared to wax cylinders, but his manufacturing associate Eldridge R. Johnson eventually improved them.
In 1901, 10-inch disc records were introduced (with around 3 minutes playing time per side) followed in 1903 by 12-inch records (with around 4 to 5 minutes playing time), although 10-inch remained the most popular size. Contemporary cylinders could only play for about two minutes, and despite improvements in cylinder playing time, during the 1910s discs decisively won out. Other size discs were used and 8-inch discs became popular for about a decade in the UK.
By 1919 the basic patents for the manufacture of disc records had expired, opening the field for countless companies to produce them.
Early disc recordings were produced in a variety of speeds ranging from 60 to 130 rpm but by 1925, the speed of disc records was standardized at a nominal value of 78 rpm. Until the introduction of microgroove 33⅓ and 45 rpm records after World War II, 78 rpm disc records were just called ‘records’, it was only after this time that they began to be called ’78s’.
Early recordings were made entirely acoustically, the sound being collected by a horn and piped to a diaphragm, which vibrated the cutting stylus. From 1925, electrical recording became available and gradually, electrical reproduction entered the home.
The earliest disc records were made of various materials including hard rubber. Around 1895, a shellac-based compound was introduced and became standard, typically composed of about one-third shellac and about two-thirds mineral filler, which meant finely pulverized rock, an admixture of cotton fibers to add tensile strength, carbon black for color, and a very small amount of a lubricant to facilitate mold release during manufacture. The production of shellac records continued until the end of the 78 rpm format, although other materials were used, including vinyl. Shellac is brittle, and records needed to be handled carefully.
By about 1910 bound collections of empty sleeves similar to a photograph album, were sold as ‘record albums‘ that customers could use to store their records. Starting in the 1930s, record companies began issuing collections of 78 rpm records by one performer or of one type of music in specially assembled albums, typically with artwork on the front cover and liner notes on the back or inside cover. When the 12-inch LP was introduced, they contained as many songs as an album of 78s and continued to be referred to as an album.
The 78 rpm format continued to be mass-produced alongside the newer formats until the late 1950s. Sales of 78 rpm records reached a peak in the US in 1947, when the record industry hit a new sales records of $204.2 million. Record sales overall declined over the next few years, and only exceeded 1947’s total in 1955 with sales of $235.2 million, by which time the 78 rpm accounted for less than 50% of sales.
In the United Kingdom, the 78 rpm single lasted longer than in the United States and the 7-inch single took longer to become popular. In the UK, sales of 78 rpm records still accounted for 65% of record sales in 1957, and this was also the peak year for production, with 54.1 discs produced. Sales of 78 rpm records declined very quickly after this, and the last 78 in the UK was ‘A Mess Of Blues’ by Elvis Presley (1960).