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.