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Early disc records were made of various materials including hard rubber. From 1897 onwards, earlier materials were largely replaced by a rather brittle formula of 25% "shellac" (a material obtained from the excretion of a southeast Asian beetle), a filler of a cotton compound similar to manila paper, powdered slate, and a small amount of a wax lubricant. The mass production of shellac records began in 1898 in Hanover, Germany. Shellac records were the most common until the 1950s. Unbreakable records, usually of celluloid (an early form of plastic) on a pasteboard base, were made from 1904 onwards, but they suffered from an exceptionally high level of surface noise.

In the 1890s the early recording formats of discs were usually seven inches (nominally 17.5 cm) in diameter. By 1910 the 10-inch (25.4cm) record was by far the most popular standard, holding about three minutes of music or entertainment on a side. From 1903 onwards, 12-inch records (30.5cm) were also commercially sold, mostly of classical music or operatic selections, with four-five minutes of music per side.

Such records were usually sold separately, in plain paper or cardboard sleeves that may have been printed to show the producer or the retailer's name and, starting in the 1930s, in collections held in paper sleeves in a cardboard or leather book, similar to a photograph album, and called record albums. Empty record albums were also sold that customers could use to store their records in.

While a 78 rpm record is brittle and relatively easily broken, both the microgroove LP 33.3 rpm record and the 45 rpm single records are made from vinyl plastic that is flexible and unbreakable in normal use. However, the vinyl records are easier to scratch or gouge. 78s come in a variety of sizes, the most common being 10 inches (25 cm), and 12 inches (30 cm) in diameter, (sometimes 6-8 inches in the UK), and these were originally sold in either paper or card covers, generally with a circular cutout allowing the record label to be seen. The Long-Playing records (LPs) usually come in a paper sleeve within a colour printed card jacket which also provides a track listing. 45 rpm singles and EPs (Extended Play) are of a 7-inch (17.5 cm) diameter, the earlier copies being sold in paper covers.

In 1930, RCA Victor launched the first commercially available vinyl long-playing record, marketed as "Program Transcription" discs. These revolutionary discs were designed for playback at 33? rpm and pressed on a 30 cm diameter flexible plastic disc. In Roland Gelatt's book The Fabulous Phonograph, the author notes that RCA Victor's early introduction of a long-play disc was a commercial failure for several reasons including the lack of affordable, reliable consumer playback equipment and consumer wariness during the Great Depression.

However, vinyl's lower surface noise level than shellac was not forgotten, nor was its durability. In the late 30's, radio commercials and prerecorded radio programs being sent to disc jockeys started being stamped in vinyl, so they would not break in the mail. In the mid-40's, special DJ copies of records started being made of vinyl also, for the same reason. These were all 78 RPM. During and after World War II when shellac supplies were extremely limited, some 78 rpm records were pressed in vinyl instead of shellac (wax), particularly the six-minute 12" (30 cm) 78 rpm records produced by V-Disc for distribution to US troops in World War II. In the 40's, radio transcriptions, which were usually on 16 inch records, but sometimes 12 inch, were always made of vinyl, but cut at 33 1/3 rpm. Shorter transcriptions were often cut at 78 rpm.

Beginning in 1939, Columbia Records continued development of this technology. Dr. Peter Goldmark and his staff undertook exhaustive efforts to address problems of recording and playing back narrow grooves and developing an inexpensive, reliable consumer playback system. In 1948, the 12" (30 cm) Long Play (LP) 33? rpm microgroove record album was introduced by the Columbia Record at a dramatic New York press conference. In 1949, RCA Victor released the first 45 RPM single, 7" in diameter, with a large center hole to accommodate an automatic play mechanism on the changer, so a stack of singles would drop down one record at a time automatically after each play. Early 45 RPM records were made from either vinyl or polystyrene.

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