Early Single
Originally uploaded by Tavallai.

Wired | Jan. 10, 1949: A Brand-New Format for the Shirelles, Drifters
1949: The 45-rpm record is introduced by RCA. Can rock ‘n’ roll be far behind?

Flat disc records began replacing the cylinder for reproducing recorded sound as early as 1887. The original standard, what we know as the 78, had a 10-inch diameter disc with a rotational speed of between 75 and 80 rpm.

The 78 remained the standard for portable recorded sound until the mid-20th century, despite some severe limitations. For one thing, the disc didn’t hold much, meaning that longer works, typically classical music, had to be broken in mid-composition (which makes the 78 seem a little like the vinyl forerunner of the four-track tape).

Columbia introduced the 33-rpm disc in 1948, which mostly solved that problem, and its rival, RCA, was right behind with the 45. Despite a diameter of only 7 inches, the 45 could hold as much sound as the 78, and was far more portable and cheaper to produce.

The beauty of this technology is this: You could watch it play and see how it worked. Every bit of the science that made sound happen was visible.

With an iPod, on the other hand, there are no moving parts larger than electrons. The basic parts are still there (data storage, scanning, conversion from physical to electronic form, transportation to vibrating surface, conversion from electronic form to vibrating air) but there’s nothing you can see going on. And a common phenomenon of everyday life gets a little more obscure.

It might as well be magic.