The Slow and the Low
The Weird History of 16 rpm Records
Dig through any record store or thrift store in town and you will find piles of 45s (what the young folk nowadays call 7-inches), LPs (no one ever called them 33 1/3s), and even old 78s. Each of these formats marked new ways of listening to, and marketing, music, and each had its time in the sun. While nearly forgotten today, there was another, lesser-known format as well: the ultra-long play 16 2/3 rpm.
78s came first and for many years they were the only game in town (unless you invested heavily in the “wax cylinder” craze). 78s were usually 10” across and made of heavy shellac. Unfortunately, their fast speed limited the play time on each side to just 3-5 minutes, and their brittle surface wasn't able to reproduce all sound frequencies.
The 45 and the LP both started coming around in the '40s and were made of much more durable and lightweight vinyl. The 45 allowed for the same 3-5 minutes per side as a 78 but weighed nothing and sounded much better.
The LP was the big game changer. With improvements in pressing and playing
technology, a record could now be made with great sound quality and a play time of 20-25
minutes per side. Sixteen rpm records would be the somewhat problematic response to the question of just how long a record could possibly be.
Sixteen rpm (actually 16 2/3... exactly half the speed of an LP's 33 1/3) records first found their way onto the marketplace during the 1930s. Because of their glacially slow playing speed, a 10” record could fit up to 45 minutes of sound per side! This was a huge jump forward in the record format wars... except for a few small problems: they were hard to play and they sounded awful.
Because of the low frequency output, the sound quality was something similar to listening to music over an old fashioned phone line. Some of them required a special stylus to be properly played and could cause damage if used on a regular record player.
Muhammad Ali listens to his Highway Hi-Fi
That wasn't going to cut it for most music listeners but it would still find a few strange applications. Early audio books and other spoken word content like religious sermons didn't need to sound fancy and were easy to deliver in longer chunks. Radio stations used them to share syndicated content and places where music was secondary, like waiting rooms and restaurants, also liked that they could have background noise without having to constantly flip records.
One of the weirdest applications for the technology was the Chrysler “Highway Hi-Fi”, a 16 rpm record player mounted under the dash of your car. Unfortunately, the pressure needed to keep the record from skipping inside a moving car was enough to grind down the record grooves after a few
plays. The in-car technology would be revamped for use with the more popular 45s later, but let's be honest: a record player in a car is an inherently bad idea.
The history of music technology is littered with dead products. Something
better always seems to come along. By the 1970s, magnetic tape technology offered long play time coupled with much better sound and the little remaining market for 16 rpm records dried up. While other forms of vinyl may have made a supposed "comeback" in recent years, 16 RPMs remain gone, and mostly forgotten.