Life at 78 RPM

File under: "what’s old is new again".

When I moved to Virginia four years ago, I knew I’d move into an unfinished apartment, and so my helpful father kept his eyes open for used furniture. For $20 he was able to snag a homemade stereo cabinet about the size of a coffin. It had two speakers installed and came with a record player. This player had been taken from its original housing and remounted on a sliding drawer in the cabinet using flexible shock mounts to minimize vibration during playback. Dad even picked up a solitary record in the event that I might be able to play it someday. However, I was never able to get the player to operate so I left it there and ignored it. (On the other hand, I was able to connect the two speakers to my amplifier just fine.)

Last winter, my good friend Ian spent five minutes soldering and restored the phonograph into working order. My lone 33rpm disk was played, and I prided myself in my triumphant slide backward in technology. Considering I’d purchased a VCR in early ’07, my techno-regression trend was continuing further back. I picked up a few more vinyl records for the novelty of playing them. At about that same time, I became enamored with music from the past recorded on cylinders and older 78rpm disks. Now armed with an operable phonograph and a naive goal, I vowed to find and play a 78. Dad warned me, "Good luck finding one. They were hard to find even when I was a kid."

That’s where Goodwill comes in. I frequently like exploring the media sections of thrift stores, looking for forgotten books and movies to be had for cheap. In Indiana, the offerings were commonly Bibles and religious books. But here in northern Virginia, one of the most densely educated parts of the nation, the academic tendency of the populace here is strongly evident in the thrift store book selection. (Where else can one find a psychology textbook from 1913?) In fact, Goodwill gets so many donated books that they’ve recently consolidated their media from regional stores into a ‘book nook’ site just a mile up the road from me.

I decided to visit the book nook last month, looking for the usual suspects… Clive Cussler novels, unowned Dave Barry writings, Gordon Lightfoot vinyl. Sometimes I happen across a good game. I didn’t find much at first. But then in a dark recess under a table I noticed an unassuming cardboard box labeled

"78s ~ Pop Music 1920-1940 ~ 25c each"

Jackpot!

But then it occurred to me that there might be a problem. I knew my turntable had a speed setting for 78 rpm (and 16 rpm too, just in case), but did I have a needle for 78s? After some research the next day, I learned that 33 needles gouge 78s upon playback. Before I drop a few bucks on vintage disks and irreparably damage them, I should check to see if I had a 78 needle. I dashed back home and discovered that the stylus head of the phonograph is a dual needle… one for 33s and one for 78s. Yes!

About face, back to Goodwill. I screened the box of 78s for anything I didn’t want (two badly fractured unplayable disks and an album of Christmas music), and took the rest of the box up to the register. A few dollars later, I was out the door with my finds proudly in hand, er… in box. (As a bonus treat, the disks were wrapped up in old newspapers from 1997 and 1983. They were interesting to browse through, looking at ads for Savings & Loans, the Concorde jet, and bulky cell phones.)

So what did I get? 25 disks, some of which were loose, and two in albums. One set is a partial collection of Wayne King recordings of popular Irving Berlin songs, only three disks of the original four. The other album was a complete four-disk recording of Richard Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde opera conducted by Leopold Stokowski. It sounds great, even by 33rpm standards! The remainder are assorted hit songs from The Forties… Dinah Shore, Gene Autry, Sammy Kaye,
Guy Lombardo, and Nelson Eddy, to name a few. Two copies of Kay Kyser’s amusingly-titled Praise the Lord and Pass the Amunition, a wartime chart topper from 1943. The oldest disk that I can tell is a hot foxtrot by George Olsen recorded sometime from 1925 to 1929. A few have chipped edges, but otherwise most are playable and just need a light cleaning. If I have a few hundred dollars to throw around in the future, I might try to digitally preserve them. I’m not in love with obsolete formats like some audiophiles, but using obsolete tech makes me feel a little bit more like a time traveler. (For the curious, the disk being played above is Pee Wee Hunt’s "Somebody Else, Not Me".)

A little history for y’all: The 78rpm disk was the original phonograph record, invented by DC resident Emile Berliner in the 1880s. It won the first ever format war against Edison’s wax cylinders, declaring victory around 1920. The 78 was the unopposed standard for twenty years, until the 33rpm disk was introduced in 1948. With improved durability and sixfold capacity, the 33 quickly replaced the 78, which had all but disappeared by 1960. The 33 is what we think of today when we talk of "vinyl". The 33 survived competition from the portable magnetic tape formats of 8-track; and cassette;, but was quickly
buried by compact discs, which cornered the market by 1988.

Another tech happening… my 2003 DVD player died, and I replaced it. The newer device is smaller, lighter and cheaper than the old one. That’s been the story with technological evolution over the last two centuries, and now its embodied on my TV stand.


In other news I’ve been spending much of my time with family. Mom came to visit for a weekend, a we took her to the DAR Museum. Evelyn and I attended a funeral in Los Angeles for Evelyn’s grandmother. My nephew turned four years old, with my in-laws visiting for the occasion. We gave him more wooden train stuff as gifts. I think he’s almost ready for dominoes.

Consequently my other hobbies are on furlough during all this family bonding time. Kurt has been showing us Firefly. On the gaming front, I’ve been playing Silent War, Dead Money, and a fan-made expansion for Give Me the Brain, Unpaid Overtime.

The next two months promise to be even busier than the last two. The inaugural Post Hunt is a week from Sunday. I’m looking forward to demoing my game designs at Balticon later this month. There’s a coin show in Annandale this June that I’m planning on attending, and my father’s hosting a shindig back home the following weekend. Right after that is a family gathering on Long Island.


Nifty Wikipedia Thing: the odd town of Busingen, Germany

Amusing Video: The Engineers’ Guide to Cats

Movies I’ve Seen:

Shanghai Noon (2000) ~ fast and loose buddy western

Matchstick Men (2003) ~ neurotic conman becomes dysfunctional father

What I’m Reading:

"Atlas Shrugged" by Ayn Rand

"Dave Barry Hits Below the Beltway" by Dave Barry

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