Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Why Do 45 RPM Records Have Big Holes?

Tomorrow is Vinyl Record Day so, for the third year in a row, Bloggerhythms will help celebrate and reminisce about our old friend, the phonograph record. This year we're going to find out why 45 RPM records have much larger holes than 78s and 33s. Believe it or not I often wondered about this burning question when I was collecting hundreds of these little seven inch gems back the 1960s.

According to several websites, including Answerbag, the reason for the large hole used by 45s was simple. It was difficult for the old 78s, with their smaller holes, to find their way onto jukebox spindles. The large hole effectively eliminated that problem.

Strangely, seven inch 45s were often pressed with the smaller holes used for LPs in many countries outside the United States, especially in the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand. Overseas the inserts (commonly know as spiders) were manufactured into the large holes at the factories but they could be punched out if desired. The Beatles' British single of "Love Me Do," pictured here, is a typical example. Why were the spiders built into English 45s? I was unable to find the answer yet I'm certain that other countries who used this practice had jukeboxes too.

Further research suggests that, in America, record companies would have needed to duplicate their manufacturing processes to make 45s with small holes for the consumer market thereby making production more expensive. Since kids were a large part of their marketing base the higher prices this move would have necessitated made no sense at all.

The Straight Dope offers another reason behind the larger hole size of the 45, one much less obvious to the public. In 1931 RCA's chance to market a 33 1/3 RPM turntable and record ended in disaster. However, in 1948, Columbia managed to do just that with Capitol and Decca quickly following their lead a year later. RCA, still smarting that Columbia pulled off what they weren't able to do almost a generation earlier, was understandably shy about trying the fledgling format again so their engineers were told to come up with an entirely different system that would be totally incompatible with Columbia's long players. So, in addition to producing records with a different speed, RCA decided their 45s would have a big hole to further guarantee the two systems would be completely different.

At the time there were record players that played only 45 or 33 RPM records but not both, so a format war ensued. Anyone who remembers the VHS - Betamax war of not so long ago will appreciate the Columbia - RCA tussle. Apparently it never occurred to RCA that multi-speed turntables, spiders, and 45 RPM adapters that enabled listeners to stack multiple 45s on record changers, would soon be available. Industry insiders thought RCA had another boondoggle on its hands but the public ended up embracing both technologies.

The Straight Dope never mentions the jukebox as a reason for the big holes and the only other source I found that briefly wrote about what became known as the "War of the Speeds" was Wikipedia. As with most things in history I'm sure there are elements of truth in both stories.

10 comments:

  1. I for one, never knew that! I linked here today cause I love 45 records. I saw a necklace once that was a replica of one of those things you stick in the middle of the 45 to make it fit the 33...I almost bought it just because so few people would have known what it was.

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  2. I bought a Project turntable recently (2011), and it came with a spider for playing 45 RPM records with a large centre!

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  3. All UK 45s had the small hole but the centre was pushed out for jukebox use They were easily stacked onto autochangers as were LPs

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  4. In ex-Yugoslavia, the record label Yugoton used to put a spider in the 45's that could be removed and used for other records that didn't have one. Pure genius.

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  5. During the war some factories were expropriated by the governments and converted to help the war effort...it might be that the record industry devised the spider because their small hole press was needed to make bullets, so they used a blue bell jar or crown bottle/canning press with a widemouth hole and devised the spider, to keep the music alive! Well done, my friends, well done.

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    1. Its an interesting idea, but...
      1) The hole in a vinyl record isn't made by methods, machines or tooling useful for making ammunition.
      2) The 45 RPM record was introduced in 1949, well after post-WWII re-conversion
      3) Factories in the USA weren't expropriated per-se, factories did take on war material production contracts, and some raw materials were preferentially allocated to war production. On production lines that converted to producing war material, pre-war tooling of any value was placed in storage.
      4) Bottle caps in that era were stamped from rolls of plated sheet steel, half-crimped, with a cork composition seal glued into the center. They were placed on the bottle mouth and crimped in place with a cylindrical tool. None of these machines or tools would be of any use making vinyl records.

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  6. I think the juke box explanation has some merit. A stack of 7-inch singles with a spiders on a skinny spindle didn't always work that well -- sometimes they would bind half-way down instead of dropping to the platter. I think the reason is that the 45's were lighter than LP's and lacked the momentum to overcome friction when dropped. Binding happened with the larger spindle too, but not as often -- the larger spindle stopped them from hanging up.

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    1. The spider offered in the USA for 45 RPM records delivered with a large hole didn't work with the drop-one-from-the-stack record changer. The weight from above pushed the friction fit spider out of the hole. The stack spindle was a pull-out that was swapped for a large diameter version. The friction of the large diameter hole was much greater than the small hole. The hang-up rate was high and this changer wasn't really useful.

      Jukeboxes of that era stored the records narrow edge down. Records were not produced with great precision, most were slightly warped, had slightly off center holes, the diameter wasn't very precise, etc. The large hole simplified the mechanics of handling the discs. For example, to let the juke box select the record using the edge and place it on a horizontal spindle that expanded to grip the disc.

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  7. I remember seeing record changers handling the 45s with snap-in spiders without any problems, though I'm sure there were a few instances in which a malformed record or spider would cause the assembly to separate. The automatic large-hole adapters were originally round and smooth, with a rotating lower section to allow a large-hole record to be played as precisely as a small-hole one. But at time went on, space and cost pressure led to flat adapters, some of which had a contorted Z shape and no moving parts; these usually did a passable job of dropping the records one-at-a-time, but they didn't align the record on the platter as accurately as their round predecessors. One combination that would worked very badly would be an attempt to play a UK record with the center plug clipped out on a changer with one of the later flat adapters. Some of the last record changers, particularly BIC and some high-end Japanese models, were shipped with no adapter; maybe the intention was to have the user put inserts in all large-hole records. It would have been a shame to have a changer that could only handle long-play records, since singles need the automation the most. For a look at the 45-only changers that RCA nearly gave away for a few years, do a search on YT for "45 player". These machines were hardly high-end, but they were impressively fast. Due to RCA's intransigence, some consoles were even sold with one changer for 45s and one for everything else.

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  8. i'm looking to buy a 45 rpm adapter.
    do you thinks this is a good one? https://www.amazon.com/dp/B01GBBF2L8

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