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45s1s54 Part 2
Columbia clam shell LP player

Software Medium: Speed Limits

On the first record-playing machines, keeping a constant speed was impossible as they were rotated by hand. If you listened closely, going slower made the sound last longer but made it sound worse. Spring-drive of course helped standardize speeds. I've seen one suggestion that from 1894 to around 1930, record speeds ranged from 65 to 90 rpm. Another source suggests that standardisation began in 1912, when one company conducted listening tests on their back catalogue and settled on the average (or possibly the median) of these tests, which turned out to be 78 rpm. Other companies adopted this, but the process was not complete until the early 1930s. There was another curious story that suggested Victor used 76 rpm for many years but instructed buyers to play back at 78 rpm improving the record's durability. Whatever the case, 78 rpm became-seemingly by default-the first disc speed standard.

Then along came film-as in moving pictures. Apparently (and you can try this at home-if no one else is listening) if you play a standard 12 inch 78 at 33 1/3 rpm. It lasts for about 10 minutes (although your interest in it lasts much less). Co-incidentally, a reel of film from the early 'talky era' lasted approximately 10 minutes (1,000 feet of film). American Vitagraph (via Bell labs) took these seemingly disparate facts and put them together to make talking pictures using discs - records and reels were changed at the same time to keep the film's visuals and sound in synch. Suddenly I have that scene from Singing In The Rain in my head ("It goes through the wire and ends up on the record. Now SILENCE!"). Actually, the 33 1/3 fell out of the work by Maxfield and Harrison of Bell Laboratories, part of which showed that it was a convenient speed approximately one-half of 78 that could be easily locked to the 60-hertz line. It has been suggested that Columbia just 'dusted off' a transcription disc turntable (this format is mentioned in Part 1 under 'material’) from RCA and they used that speed for the LP.

And-of course-78 minus 33 equals 45. [Ahem.]

Actually, I have three stories for why the 45 turns at that speed. In the first, "The 45 rpm speed was the only one to be decided by a precise optimisation procedure (by RCA Victor in 1948). Calculus was used to show that the optimum use of a disc record of constant rotational speed occurs when the innermost-recorded diameter is half the outermost- recorded diameter. That's why a 7-inch single has a label 3 1/2 inches in diameter. Given the CBS vinyl groove dimensions and certain assumptions about the bandwidth and tolerable distortion, a speed of 45 rpm comes out of the formula." (Quoted from Copeland- although the research actually sounds like the work done by Maxfield et al at Bell Labs not RCA.)

In the Second story, "J. P Maxfield analy[zed] the compromise between signal-to-noise ratio and came up with 33 1/3... Maxfield's analysis still applies: the 45 'single' was RCA's equivalent to a 10-inch, 78 rpm record, only smaller." (Brack-Nanestad)

The third story holds, "RCA Victor came up with a 7- inch vinyl disc with microgrooves, rotating at 45 rpm, a speed chosen specifically to make the most of the music, unlike 78s or 33 1/3s." (Worsley)

(Much of the above is from: Peter Copeland, British Library National Sound Archive London; George Brock-Nannestad; Roger Worsley; and Journal of the Audio Engineering Society, October/November 1977, Vol. 25, Number 10/11.)

So, in 1948 Columbia brought out the microgroove LP. It was made of Vinylite and spun at the transcription disc speed of 33 1/3. Here are three of my favourite quotes regarding the LP:

"Wallerstein, anticipating the need, was smart enough to make a deal with Philco to put out a player for $29.95 which they lowered to $9.95. For $29.95 you got the player and three LP's which were $4.95 each. They were using the Gillette razor method - virtually giving the player away to get people to buy the records."

"When you took into account the playing time per disc, LPs were cheaper than 78s. The typical recording of a symphony on LP cost about half what it had on 78s. Customers paid less and got more. No wonder the LP was one of the most successful product launches in history. And just think: there probably wasn't a single MBA involved. " Sam Tellig, February 2001.

"Though the Columbia record was introduced on June 21, 1948, at the Chicago Radio Convention, it wasn't until 1950 that most of its problems were solved. It succeeded not so much because it was revolutionary but because it worked and was wisely marketed with an 'inexpensive' and widely available player." Martin Mayer, January 1958.

The well-told story is that General Sarnoff, now in charge of RCA, was invited to Columbia. As Edward Wallerstein (one of the developers of the LP) told it: "In April 1948, two months before the LP's first public showing, Paley [William S. Paley, president of the Columbia Broadcasting System] called David Sarnoff, of RCA and told him that we had a new development in the record field that we would like very much for him to see. A meeting was arranged in the boardroom of CBS, and I demonstrated the LP. Not much was said, but I did have the impression that General Sarnoff was pretty upset. In the silence that followed, Paley said he'd be glad to discuss an arrangement for licensing...In fact there are no basic patents on the LP, so RCA was forced to do its own research. They came back to us in a few days and said they weren't interested and I think it was a bit of a blow to Paley that he wasn't going to make a lot of money in licensing." Sarnoff's professional pride apparently suffered and it has been reported that he had later said such things as, "How could little Columbia with a two- by-four laboratory, beat RCA?"

(Remember this little tid-bit. The Columbia Vinylite record could have been any colour at all. It could also have been clear - think, Vogue record. The 78 was black because the addition of lamp black increased the life of the record-supposedly reducing wear. Columbia made LPs black to calm the suspicious consumer. 'See, it's just like a 78!")

RCA immediately rushed a new format into production the next year in direct competition with Columbia. Right? Well, no. We have to go back to the 1930s again!

9-EY-3 table phonograph - one of the original 1949 RCA players

Impetus for change: Why is the hole so big in the 45?

I think it's safe to say that the length of the popular song has been affected by the consumer recording industry. Of course, putting an opera across a gazillion 78s, and having a fade out in the middle of a symphony movement-puts classical music at the opposite end of the spectrum. To save the lover of classical music from wearing out the carpet, companies started adding changers to their electric 78 players.

I have seen sources indicating that Bill Carson was responsible for the design of all RCA record changers up to and including those of the early 45s, starting in 1927 when he was at Victor. Recently there has been an amusing discussion on one of the Internet phonograph groups about the 'Rube Goldberg' early RCA changers. These beasts (such as the Type I, Type IT and to a lesser extent the changer in the "Magic Brain" machines) can provide as much entertainment in watching the record change as in listening to the music. And one enthusiast likens servicing such monsters to servicing an early automobile! The RCA changers worked well with RCA records but unfortunately there was no standard for the size or thickness to the shellac 78. This has been cited as the reason why not all changers worked well with all records.

One changer has been called, "The best available delaminator of Columbia records ever invented." Another was described as, "Systematically discriminating against Victor records cracking them neatly." And further, "The weight of 78s on the spindle, and different thicknesses and edges of the discs broke down the drive and separator mechanisms. The drawbacks helped give changers the worst reputation among RCA Victor products." (after Alexander Magoun)

Somewhere between 1934 (what a coincidence) and 1939 RCA turned again to Bill Carson and challenged him to come up with the killer changer - reliable and fast. Carson's reply essentially was, "OK. But you'll have to change the record." It has been called the best- kept industrial secret in the history of consumer electronics. RCA embarked on the 'X-project' to develop a new record and changer. (In order to protect the patent life of the system components, the project became the only secret consumer technology project in RCA's history.) Magoun (In Phil Vourtsis' The Fabulous Victrola 45) does a good job of tracking the development of the X-record and how it got stalled within the bureaucracy of RCA with the marketing department at one point being unaware of its existence.

Another of my exciting finds doing this research was a series of pencil and watercolour studies done by the RCA design studios in 1943. The machines they render clearly have the thick spindles of the 45 format, or at least, of Carson's changer for the X record. (One of these pictures is on page 5 of the November-December APN in Part I of this article.)

In 1948, with Columbia threatening to take the lead on a new format that would finally replace the 78, RCA had to make a decision. Go with Columbia? Hardly. Corporate pride would not allow it. Come out with the new changer and run at 78? Go with the whole new X record player and format? It has been called the last time that the engineers won at RCA. Carson's changer would be launched with a microgroove record spinning at 45 rpm. (The original players were the 9-JY phonograph attachment and the 9-EY-3 table phonograph. Carson's X-changer was dubbed the RP- 168 changer or chassis.) But the marketing department had finally woken up and had a hand in what RCA did to the record.

The 45 rpm record's large centre hole was made to accommodate the spindle of the new changer. One of Carson's objectives for the changer was to eliminate the ‘arm’ to hold the record steady. The only way to do that was to have a diameter big enough to stabilize the weight of the record. You can't do that with a tiny 78 (and LP) centre hole. (Another of Carson's objectives was to have the change cycle occur in one revolution. That is why the changers are so quick.)

As noted previously, Columbia with a clean slate had the opportunity to change the colour of the record when the vinyl LP was introduced but tried to make consumers feel 'safe' with the traditional black. RCA on the introduction of the 45 brought out a veritable rainbow of vinyl. They made it easier to tell the musical style on the record just by glancing at it. There were:

  • Classical records in red-after the 'Red Seal label, I suppose.
  • International records in sky blue-for all of the nations under the sky?
  • Light classical records in (romantic?) midnight blue.
  • Country records in green - for the grass of the country?
  • Popular records in the traditional black.
  • Children's records in eye-catching bright yellow.
  • R&B and Spirituals in ugly orange.

Oops, the salesmen were supposed to sell the R&B as 'cerise' vinyl, not orange. The RCA colour description, I guess, makes sense for all of those singers who ‘woke up this morning' and thought life was the pits. Cerise is by far the scarcest record colour, with early records regularly fetching $60US, when they are available.

Of course the realities of the production line - where work had to be stopped, the colour cleaned out and the next colour started - put a quick end to the colours. Red and especially yellow hung on a little longer (yellow kids’ records being available from other labels). The colours also tended to bring an aura of 'cheapness' to the 45 at this crucial time. RCA was now in a battle for the ears and wallets of music lovers with Columbia and with the dead-format-walking, the 78.

45-J-1 RCA attachment from 1950 (essentially, a re-branded 9-JY from 1949) and contemporary radio (9-X-571 'bullhorn’)

Finally: The Phony War to R.I.P.

The date generally cited for launch of the RCA 45 is March 31, 1949. Some cite an earlier date, but prior to this the RCA Distributor's Record Bulletins had only records with number starting with 20, 21 and 22. They were all 78s! There were no 45s available for some weeks yet! The period right after release and up to the RCA 'capitulation' (with RCA's acceptance of the LP in January, 1950) is generally called "The War Of the Speeds' but I call it a phony war. Both formats would remain healthy well into the 80s. Each had a niche, but it may have taken some executives a while to realize this.

RCA seems to have hit a 'speed bump’ early in the war until it realized that 45s were not for multi-record classical albums mimicking those of the 78 era, they were selling more to listeners interested in single songs. Younger people in particular were more interested in spending less to hear just their 'hits' on cheap players. This swing is evident to me by the three players available from RCA in the second year of 45 production.

In 1950, there were three players available that did exactly the same job:

- The original 9-JY radio attachment (I hear that those over 50 may also remember using the TV) of 1949 was re-branded the 45-J-1 in 1950. This had Carson's original X-changer (RP-168) with a number of brass parts.

- The 45-]J-2 attachment was new from the ground up. It sported a brand new changer (RP-190) with more plastic parts and was built by a third-party, Crescent.

- The 45-J-3 was ALSO a new attachment built from the ground up. It sported yet another brand new changer with brass parts (RP-193) and it was also built by a third-party, Oak. The J-3 is the most interesting looking 45 player RCA marketed (other than the Berkshire attachment). It has a swooping metal tone arm and more interesting ‘cosmetics’. It is not the ‘appliance’ the J-2 appears to be.

Some suggestion has been made that RCA over- anticipated demand for the 45 and had 3 players available. The demand wasn't there, so only one of these players lived beyond 1950. Then again, my Biology background suggests a more Darwinian subtext. The J-3 is more classy and likely more expensive to build. RCA just ran out its over-stock of RP-168 players, contracted out to a third party to cut costs and when the 45 found its niche with younger folk with less money, the cheap J-2 survived the extinction. I will later suggest that this lesson was lost on record manufacturers during the CD era.

Briefly the evolution of the RCA player is:

  • As noted, the original 1949 player model numbers started with '9".
  • In 1950 they changed to '45' and the 'E' line was moved down a notch with the 9-EY-3 being replaced by the 45-EY-2 while the 45-EY-3 received a lid.
  • In 1955 models started with '6' and included a number of cost-cutting measures. This was also the year that Carson's new single-play model was introduced, the Slide-O-Matic, which accepted the record through the front.
  • In 1956, models starting with '7' and '8' sported better sound through ceramic cartridges, beefed-up amplifiers and-in some cases-separate woofer and tweeter speakers. The new players of 1956 should be avoided, as they are the result of even more cost- cutting measures and have been "regarded as downright cheap". Clearly, profits were going down for machines to play only 45s.

The 78 was dead. In its place survived the LP to fill the niche of the 78 album and the 45 for the niche of single 78 sales. In the 1950s the Voice Of Music Company (V-M) designed the model 900 changer. It was robust, cheap to build and handled all speeds. Manufacturers from RCA to Columbia to Zenith essentially gave up making their own changers and the V-M (with later variations) was in "every American made records changer made from the late 1950s to the end of the American consumer electronics industry, sometime in the 1970s. At which point the [British], Germans and Japanese [not to mention the Swiss] took over the market."

In 1958 there was a fire in the Crescent Chicago factory. Since there was a plethora of 3 speed (and more) changers on the market, it made no sense to rebuild and resume production of the 45-only player.

RCA 45 Player

R.I.P. (1949-1958)

"Collectible" 45 Players

Phil Vourtsis' book is the place to go for details of each model (especially RCA) and a rough 'price guide’. The following is my "Cook's tour" of this material.

RCA 45 players can be categorized by their underlying chassis (the changer-remember that?):

  • The very first players (9-EY-3x and 9-JY of 1949) had Carson's original X-changer, the RP-168. It is identified by its brass platter, tone arm and spindle. The most unusual RCA machine must be the CP-5203 (sporting the RP-168) with its cherry-wood case and brass hardware intended to convert the RCA 'Berkshire' monster entertainment centres (like the $4,100 Breakfront that weighed in at 7151b with 69 tubes!) to 45 players.
  • The RP-168 was all but abandoned in 1950 for the RP-190 chassis (45-EY-x, 45-2, etc. of 1950, through the 6-x units of the 1955 revision to the 8-EY-31x of 1957) built by Crescent. The 190 is identified by the plastic tone arm, platter and spindle. Obviously the RP-168 machines are fewer in number. The 45-EY-3 (a ‘downshift’ turned the 9-EY-3 into the 45-Ey-2) is a lidded machine with above-average styling mistakenly called 'deco’ that commands a few dollars more than most RP-190 machines.
  • Even more rare is the 45-J-3. As noted above,it was made only in 1950 and was the only model with the RP-193 chassis. This machine is quite distinctive with its swooping tone arm.
  • Carson's last technical 45 hurrah was, of course the RP-199 'Slide-O-Matic' brought out in 1955. These machines required the record to be inserted in much the same way as a CD in some players of today. They don't change at all! Those versions with radios generally command twice the price of plain ones. (And the clear one likely commands a price similar to that of a clear Panasonic Plunger 8-track player. I thought you really needed to know!)

Higher prices are generally commanded for those machines with extra ornamentation. These include the Disney (3 versions), Roy Rogers and Ding Dong School (based on an early 'educational' TV show) models. And who can forget the 7-EP-45 with the signature in gold of some kid named Presley?

I don't generally look for anything for its 'collectible' cachet - I'm more interested in design. Through licensing, RCA made the 45 technology available to other manufacturers. In my eyes RCA was trumped by more interesting machines from Emerson, Crosley, Zenith and even Crescent(!).

1950 Crosley 45 attachment and contemporary 10-138 radio. Crosley, Motorola and Zenith marketed the same player based on the RP-168 - better looking than the RCAs!

Caveat Emptor

So for 15 bucks you just picked up a 45 player, eh? Now you'll, go home and plug it in. If it plays, please immediately run out and buy a lottery ticket! Boy, are you lucky today! Remember, | was nearly fried by my first player. Here is why yours likely won't play (it also shows why working players demand the prices they do):

  1. The crystal cartridge is dead. Rochelle salt crystals, used in the first players, are heat and humidity sensitive. Also, the cartridge was expected only to have about 10 hours of playing time in it. You can try to mount a modern, low cost cartridge yourself (from say, Ed Saunders) or go for a "Low Rider’ (from William Bosco) that essentially 'plugs right in'. (Maybe $35 US for parts.)
  2. The tubes are dead. Sorry, you can't run down to the local store's tube-tester any more and then pick out a replacement (I can remember my Dad doing this!). If you can't do it yourself you need to have some refurbishing done by an expert. Sorry, I won't divulge my repair source as I need him to work on MY machines before he retires - and he's long overdue already. (Maybe $75 - which includes the labour for other problems on this list.)
  3. Idler wheel and/or cycling cam is too hard or even melted (one of mine was!). If this is the case, when the changer cycles, the unit may stop dead. The turntable also may run slow. You can try to 'get a grip' with lacquer thinner or other chemical, but it's best to get it replaced/retired. ($10 US for a kit or $30 US for a completely rebuilt wheel, with trade in.)
  4. The motor may be bouncing up and down and/or unable to get a grip on the wheel. You need your rubber motor mounts replaced. ($5 US for 6-9 depending on supplier.)

There is a list of US resources at the back of Vourtsis' book. To it I will add Ed Crocket (phoned@aol.com) for wheels and motor mounts; Ed Saunders (www.ewsaunders.com) for replacement cartridges (the power point conversion kit-newly made by Pfanstiehl- worked nicely on my 63-E); and Dave Cantelon's Just Radios for Canadian electric phonograph schematics to facilitate repair (their web page for thisis http://www.geocities.com/justradios/phonos.html). If you have any Canadian contacts for any of this stuff, please share!

Final Word

Cylinder vs. disc, Beta vs VHS, 4-track vs 8-track, then 8-track vs audiocassette. The 45 was the same, right? Well, yes and no. The 45 still lives. In 1998 (the last year I have of reliable data) more than 2 million were pressed. Jukebox owners can't be the only ones to give the label 'Collectibles' the clout to insist record companies continue 45 production. Downstairs Records has 45s for sale on their website from 98 Degrees, Aaliyah and Christina Aguilera-all artists of the 21st century-alongside of those by that Presley character. (Apropos of nothing at all, you can also buy 8-track tapes made in the 21st century! Stop laughing. More on this at a later date.) It might be more appropriate to say it was LP vs the CD as only now are the record companies remembering the lessons of the ‘phony war".

In 1949 and 1950 LP and 45 were supposedly going after the same market. They co-existed for essentially 40 years because they weren't in the 'same space’ at all. The 45 record was taken up by the younger consumer because they could save by buying the songs they WANTED to hear without buying a whole-and more expensive-album containing 'filler' (a nod must also be made to the established Jukebox base with the same need). The CD replaced the LP (which had replaced the 78 album). A half-hearted attempt was made to produce the CD single, but it was too little too late (and way too expensive!). With the advent of computer music files, techno-savvy young people could once again hear just the songs they wanted. File-sharing services filled the void left by the record companies adding the issue of copyright protection (and unfortunately, fuelling the perception of free music). Just this week as I finish off this article new pay-by- song services were announced. So now we have Microsoft Media Player vs Real Audio vs MP3 vs AAC. Some things never change.

The 45 lives (as does the spirit of the single 78)-it's just that they don't all spin anymore! And remember, it all started with Junior.