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The earliest rotation speeds varied widely. Most records made in 1900-1925 were recorded at 74-82 revolutions per minute (RPM). However a few unusual systems were deployed. The Dutch Philips company introduced records whose rotational speed varied such that the reproducing "needle" ran at a constant linear velocity (CLV) in the groove. These records also, unusually, played from the inside to the outside. Both of these features were to be emulated by the modern day Compact Disc. The London Science Museum displays a Philips record marked as "Speed D". It is one of these CLV disks.

In 1925, 78.26 rpm was chosen as the standard because of the introduction of the electrically powered synchronous turntable motor. This motor ran at 3600 rpm with a 46:1 gear ratio which produced 78.26 rpm. In parts of the world that used 50 Hz current, the standard was 77.92 RPM (3000 rpm with a 38.5:1 ratio), which was also the speed at which a strobe disc with 77 lines would "stand still" in 50 Hz light (92 lines for 60Hz). Thus these records became known as 78s (or "seventy-eights"). This term did not come into use until after World War II when a need developed to distinguish the 78 from other newer disc record formats, an example of a retronym. Earlier they were just called records, or when there was a need to distinguish them from cylinders, disc records. Standard records was also used, although the same term had also been used earlier for two-minute cylinders.

Columbia and RCA's competition extended to equipment. Some turntables included spindle size adapters, but other turntables required snap-in inserts like this one to adapt RCA's larger 45 rpm spindle size to the smaller spindle size available on nearly all turntables.After World War II, two new competing formats came on to the market and gradually replaced the standard "78": the 33? rpm (often just referred to as the 33 rpm), and the 45 rpm. The 33? rpm LP (for "long play") format was developed by Columbia Records and marketed in 1948. RCA Victor developed the 45 rpm format and marketed it in 1949, in response to Columbia. Both types of new disc used narrower grooves, intended to be played with a smaller stylus (typically 0.001" (25 µm) wide, compared to 0.003" (76 µm) for a 78) so the new records were sometimes called Microgroove. In the mid-1950s all record companies agreed to a common recording standard called RIAA equalization. Prior to the establishment of the standard each company used its own preferred standard, requiring discriminating listeners to use preamplifier with multiple selectable equalization curves.

A number of recordings were pressed at 16? RPM, but these were mostly used for radio transcription discs or narrated publications for the blind and visually impaired, and were never widely commercially available, although it was still common to see turntables with a 16 RPM speed setting produced as late as the 1970s. The older 78 format continued to be mass produced alongside the newer formats into the 1950s, and in a few countries, such as India, into the 1960s. As late as the 1970s, some children's records were released at the 78 rpm speed.

The commercial rivalry between RCA Victor and Columbia Records led to RCA Victor's introduction of what it had intended to be a competing vinyl format, the 7" (175 mm) /45 rpm disc. For a two-year period from 1948 to 1950, record companies and consumers faced uncertainty over which of these formats would ultimately prevail in what was known as the "War of the Speeds".

Eventually the 12" (300 mm) 33? rpm LP prevailed as the predominant format for musical albums, and the 7" (175 mm) 45 rpm disc or "single" established a significant niche for shorter duration discs, typically containing one song on each side. The 45 rpm discs typically emulated the playing time of the former 78 rpm discs, while the LP discs provided up to one half hour of time per side (though typically 15 to 20 minutes). The 45 rpm discs also came in a variety known as Extended play (EP) which achieved up to 10-15 minutes play at the expense of attenuating (and possibly compressing) the sound to reduce the width required by the groove.

From the mid-1950s through the 1960s, in the U.S. the common home "record player" or "stereo" would typically have had these features: a three- or four-speed player with changer (78, 45, 33?, and sometimes 16? rpm); a combination cartridge with both 78 and microgroove styluses; and some kind of adapter for playing the 45s with their larger center hole. The large center hole on 45s allows for easier handling by jukebox mechanisms. RCA 45s can also be adapted to the smaller spindle of an LP player with a plastic snap-in insert known as a "spider"; such inserts were prevalent starting in the 1960s.

Deliberately playing or recording records at the wrong speed was a common amusement. For example, playing the song "I'm on Fire" from Bruce Springsteen's 33.3 LP at a 45 speed gives the singer a falsetto singing voice that sounds very much like Dolly Parton. Conversely, playing a 45 rpm recording of Dolly Parton at 33.3 gives her a voice a husky, almost masculine tone.

This effect was used in 1966 by Cork Marcheschi of California group the Ethix (and later of Fifty Foot Hose), who issued an experimental single, "Bad Trip", which could be played at any speed. Canadian musician Nash the Slash also took advantage of this speed/tonal effect with his 1981 12" disc Decomposing, which featured four instrumental tracks that were engineered to play at any speed (with the playing times listed for 33?, 45 and 78 rpm playback). Faster playback made the tracks sound like punk rock or power pop, while slower speeds gave the songs a thick, heavy metal effect.

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