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45s1s54: Part 1
A 45RPM player from 1943

There are times I could really use Phonoholics Anonymous. It was just a simple purchase - only $45 at a flea market (what a curious price, eh?). The only really memorable thing about the whole transaction is that the vendor and I nearly both got electrocuted when we tried to see if it worked. But, once again, it led me down yet another path of discovery. Now I have seven of them and they've brought a whole retinue of other objects previously foreign to my collection - vintage radios and electric 78 players of all sorts. Yes, when I picked up an RCA 45 player to represent 1957 in my school demonstrations I launched down yet another fascinating avenue in the history of recorded sound. At least this one didn't have a Mad Man or 'Noble Truths' in its past.

For a comprehensive description of the universe of the 45-only player I recommend the new book by Phil Vourtsis,The Fabulous Victrola 45. It also includes a separate in-depth history of the development of the 45 at RCA written by Alexander Magoun. But where I got myself lost was in the overall story. How the heck did we get from spring- driven phonographs playing discs made from bug residue to the electric turntable playing plastic discs at more than one speed? This article (and the presentation I gave to CAPS with the same name) is my attempt to tell the story I unravelled.

Before we get to the '45' there are three major threads to follow-in our 'modern' terminology. We can call one the hardware and one the software medium while the last we can call the impetus for change. Each of the first two threads splits two ways. On the hardware thread there was the idea of the separate electric record player, and the new/old material it was made from. On the software medium thread there is another old/new material, plus the speed at which it rotates.

When I finally get to the 45, I will briefly review its rise and fall as a stand-alone format, mention some of the more collectible machines and give you some advice should you wish to follow in my footsteps. My story starts when people could still buy spring- driven record players.

Hardware: Blame it on Junior

Between radio and the Great Depression record sales had made a precipitous decline. Sarnoff's "radio music box" idea of 1915/16 was beginning to saturate the air with free music by the time the October 1929 crash wiped out many entertainment budgets. I have seen US statistics showing 1929 records sales at $75 million. By 1930 that number had dropped below $19 million and then it imploded to less than $6 million by 1931. Something new was needed.

RCA Model R-93

In Edward Wallerstein's own words (one of the developers of the LP): "In 1933 records had fallen into disuse to such an extent that the problem was to find some way to get people to listen to them again. RCA developed at Camden the Duo Jr. player, which could be attached to your radio. There were by this time 20 million radios in the U.S., and it seemed to me that this was our big hope in trying for a comeback of the business that had shrunk nationally to probably only $10 million. It worked beautifully, and the little attachment, which was sold at our cost, $9.95, was instrumental in revitalizing the industry. Years later I was able to use this idea again with the LP." (Originally published in High Fidelity magazine, April 1976, Volume 26, Number 4.)

RCA must have had high hopes, or must have hit a home run because (in one of my more satisfying finds) I found a reference in the company's 1934 Annual Report. Under the "Manufacture and Sales" heading it reads: "Renewed interest in the field of recorded music was stimulated by the great number of fine Victor records released, resulting in a substantial increase in sales. The Corporation also marketed a record-playing mechanism, in a small chest little larger than a cigar box, which converts any modern AC receiver into a phonograph-radio combination." 'Duo', by the way, seems to be slang used for 'radio-phonograph combination' so 'Junior' was the junior partner in turning any radio into a 'Duo''.

You won't find the words 'Duo Junior' on the attachment at all, but 'cigar box' really does come to mind because of its wood construction and separate lid. Officially it was the R-93. Released in September 1934 it was an electrically-driven turntable and magnetic pick-up with terminal posts you could use to connect to a radio set via external wires - there were no RCA phono plugs yet! The only other feature was a knob on the side as an on/off and volume switch. Another source said the R-93 sold for $16.50 but was heavily promoted at 'giveaway' prices in conjunction with multiple record purchases. The technical sheet you can still get for the attachment (from Just Radios) has only a schematic with one-line descriptions of how to attach it to various radio makes and models. I was fortunate enough to find a 1936 RCA 5T6 radio that had specific terminals labelled, "A model R-93 record player attached here will make a fine phonograph of this radio." There is no 'phono switch' on the radio and I have to tune to a quiet spot on the dial (easy on Short Wave) to get a clean sound. The turntable itself is what we might call 'direct drive' today. There is no idler wheel or belt and it is a very curious motor in that the platter is attached to the fields and functions as part of the motor. Rather than the armature spinning inside the fields, it is just the opposite! Did I mention that it takes standard straight gramophone needles?

RCA Model R-93

This then is the start of a design that leads right to the 'scratch-scratch' turntables in use by the 'DJs' of today. Previous to this, electric turntables were built right into the cabinet that held the radio. Later some models drop the radio receiver altogether, leaving the turntable, amplifier and speaker in the same box (the R-94). These three designs would be set over the next few years. Another standard piece of my school demonstration hardware is the wooden 1947 RCA VA-20 that still uses the magnetic cartridge and requires disposable needles. It has the turntable, amplifier and speaker. (It also has only 2 tubes, which has astounded my more technically-inclined friends - it must use the motor for more than turning the record.)

As Edward Wallerstein noted above, in 1948 Columbia used the same business model of releasing a 'lost-leader' attachment to play the new LP records through existing equipment. RCA a year later would do the same but would also go one step further and release other players that included their own amp and speaker as well as other deluxe models with a radio.

The forms were set, now what were they to be made from?

Hardware: It's Bakelite You Know!!!!

Some facts from www.bakeliteman.com:

  • In the film Top Hat featuring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, the floor was constructed out of Bakelite for the dance scenes. Evidently the most suitable material available at the time!!!
  • Bakelite formed part of the casing of the bouncing bombs used by the R.A.F. during their bombing raids on the Dutch dams.
  • One of the biggest collections of Bakelite jewellery ever amassed belonged to Andy Warhol, and was stored in several bonded warehouses across the USA. You name it ...Andy probably had it!!!
  • Bakelite was used widely on many of the luxury liners crossing the Atlantic during the 1930's - the Queen Mary and the ill-fated Normandie being two of the most famous and prestigious.

The best story I've read about the origins of Bakelite starts, "Anyone familiar with the newspaper printing business is aware of the chemical, Velox, which is used as a proof." It is the start of a story that seems to have been common for turn-of-the-previous- century inventors as Velox was invented in 1899 by Flemish researcher Dr. Leo Hendrick Baekeland (1863-1944). He sold the rights to Eastman Kodak for three quarters of a million dollars, and then he started developing, what else, a less flammable bowling alley floor shellac! Apparently bowling was becoming the latest rage in New York City. (From Lloyd Fadem and Stephen Z. Fadem with material from Bakelite AG.)

Dr. Leo Hendrick Baekeland

Except for Top Hat, Baekeland may not have done much for flooring, but his contribution to industry was twofold. First he combined Carbolic Acid (Phenol) with Formaldehyde to create phenol resin. Then he developed a two- stage process of grinding the original result to powder, then forming it under pressure and heat converting it "into the highly polymeric, infusible state of the final plastic". What he may not have known is that he created a substance that became a poor man's wood and a highly collectible jewellery material. Bakelite AG, founded in 1910, survives today. As do the radios made in the 40's from a related material, Catalin (apparently using liquid resin and not powder), which I've seen fetch as much as $5,600 US each, and as do the Bakelite jewellery that my research has found has gone for as much as $9,000 US.

Bakelite enters our story through the radio. During the Great Depression of the 1930's Bakelite "made it possible for everyone to buy a radio for just $10 - instead of $ 90 or so for a radio with a wooden cabinet". (Louis Vloedbeld) It is easy to see why Bakelite was used as a substitute for wood. A great deal of it is brown and the mixing - I presume - leaves swirls of tone that is reminiscent of grain. I really like the look of some of these pieces (many, though, are a boring homogeneous dark brown). Of course the other reason it was used is the ease with which it creates copies. You can stamp out identical enclosures instead of doing any sort of custom carpentry. On the plus side, in the hands of a good designer you can get shapes with compound curves that are much harder (if not impossible) with wood.

By the time RCA got to the 'B' model of the R-93 in about 1937 (after the R-93 look-alike 'A' - $18.50 retail in 1937) the 'B' might have stood for Bakelite. Gone was the lid, but at least they'd softened the angles and added faux mouldings. So far I have found no prices, but it must have been a great deal cheaper to make than the original. The R-93 'C' was back in wood, but perversely had taken on much of the look of its Bakelite sibling. RCA Canada was making the wooden V-5 turntable in 1945 which was still a dead ringer for the 'C' (however, simpler idler- wheel technology had prevailed). My, how far the Victor the Fifth had fallen.

RCA Model 63-E

Fortunately, some of the aesthetic possibilities of moulded Bakelite were explored. By 1938 RCA put out the R-100 attachment. If it did not start the craze, it certainly joined a specific style of turntable we now call the teardrop'. The record revolves on the circular part of the drop while the tonearm is attached to the point. The R-100 certainly compares favourably design-wise with the R-93B. As an aside, for years General Electric put out a children's machine in metal that was identical to the R-100 (except it had an acoustic reproducer). GE, however, acquitted itself in 1945 design-wise with the stunning ultimate teardrop JM-3 attachment with its moulded needle cups and machine-age Bakelite tone arm. Look for one with the original tone arm, good Bakelite swirling, intact labels and needle thumbscrew in place (and not a later model with the eye sore cream-coloured knob). (They are listed at $150 in the 'Deco Collectibles' book.) Other manufacturers did produce nice Bakelite record- playing mechanisms (there was a pretty, but over- priced Silvertone, I once saw) but our concentration is on RCA leading up to the 45.

At the twilight of the 78 era RCA produced the 63-E (with integrated amp and speaker) and the near- identical 6-J attachment. These two beauties from 1947/48 had 'flattened' the tip of the teardrop and their Bakelite tone arms nestled right into the case until "popped up' - in the case of the 63-E to reveal the volume control. Unfortunately, I haven't yet solved a slow motor problem on mine. If you look at the 63-E and squint, you can see the original 45 player, the 9-...00ps...but we're not there yet - although the 'E' and 'J' designations were recycled for the 45 playersas the amplified and attachment versions respectively.

As noted above, the basic hardware configurations were now in place for the RCA 45 players. Following Columbia, who itself had already followed RCA, they would produce attachments like the R-93 to get the consumer started quickly with the new format. Using Bakelite - as did Philco, which produced the LP 'clamshell' player on behalf of Columbia in 1948 - RCA players would be cheaper to produce.

But, of course the record player wasn't ALL that was different.

Software Medium: Another Old/New Material

The old 78 discs are, of course, heavy, noisy and brittle. They are also made from a substance secreted by the Lac beetle. (Do you know the weight of bug residue there is in your standard milk crate of 78s?) The search for a new disc material did not start in 1948.

In 1929, RCA introduced a new disc format spinning at 33 1/3 made of Victrolac vinyl plastic. The timing for a new format was not right and the disc failed to replace the popular 78 rpm consumer speed. However, the professional transcription disc coated with cellulose acetate remained the standard for radio station recording until magnetic tape was adopted in 1948.

During WWII, the American armed services were having trouble supplying entertainment to the troops overseas. It has been said that four out of every five discs arrived in pieces. To add to the problem, the Japanese had taken over French Indochina, so the U.S. had lost its supply of imported shellac. Although shellac could be recycled and reused (and apparently many Americans donated their old 78's in scrap drives for war materials), the music was drowned out by the loud surface noise on recycled shellac discs. Lieutenant George Robert Vincent, a technical officer with the Armed Forces Radio Service, undertook a special recording project that would provide new songs to the troops. After much testing, Vincent's team found that Vinylite, a Union Carbide product, could be used as a viable substitute for shellac - the discs were still spun at 78 rpm. Because the Army also used Vinylite for insulation and life rafts, V- Discs used a second resin - Formvar, a Canadian- invented polyvinyl - in conjunction with Vinylite (one of the companies that pressed records for V- Disc, Columbia, refused to use either compound, instead making V-Discs out of whatever shellac they could allocate). An interesting aside here is that this was the time of James Caesar Petrillo's musicians' strike. V-discs were originally recorded under the agreement that they would later be destroyed. Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed and many have survived. In another interesting aside, Steve Sholes was also on the V-Disc project (he later worked with some kid named Presley). (With material from Chuck Miller, originally published in 'Goldmine', February 1999. For more, see V-Discs: A History and Discography, by Richard S. Sears.)

Between 1946 and 1947, Thomas Saffady through Sav-Way Industries of Detroit, Michigan produced the Vogue Picture Disc. A patented process sandwiched a central core aluminium disc between paper illustrations and vinyl. Between May 1946 and April 1947 seventy-four different 10-inch Vogue picture records were released. Again, the time wasn't right (or the novelty wasn't enough).

Vinyl's (or more correctly, Vinylite's) time had almost come.