Sunday, November 25, 2007

45 RPM Adapters

When RCA built the first 45rpm drop-changer players in 1949, they boasted that customers could stack their new records on the thick 1 1/2" thick spindle, start the machine and listen to 50 minutes of uninterrupted music. The thick spindle allowed 45's to drop safely onto the turntable (don't do this with a 78 unless you have a dust pan and whisk broom handy), and fit the huge 1 1/2" diameter hole in the 45's center.

By the early 1950's, standard record players were modified to handle all three speeds (some even had a fourth speed, 16 2/3 rpm, but that's for another column). But those phonographs had a thin spindle, and 45's still had that huge center hole. And if you ever lost the tube-shaped detachable center spindle that came with your phonograph ... you entered the wonderful world of 45 adapters.

The first such adapters were made in 1950 by the Webster Electric Company of Chicago. The "Webster" adapter was a tin circle with four teeth, two on each side. You had to nearly bend a record in half to wedge a Webster into the center hole - just follow the instructions on every Webster's ten-pack. For record collectors, Webster adapters cause more damage than they're worth - finding an Elvis Sun 45 with a Webster adapter is like finding a first edition Barbie doll with a crewcut. Inserting and removing a Webster adapter often left rectangular notches on the hole lip, or scratches on the paper label. Also, if a Webster adapter remained in a 45 for too many years, the vinyl can warp around the adapter's metal teeth, drastically lowering its playability and resale value.

Between 1950 and 1953, Capitol Records tried to solve the "hole" problem by releasing their 7-inch discs in the "O.C. 45" format. This meant the hole in a Capitol 45 was actually molded with a detachable triangular insert ("O.C." stood for "Optional Center"). Some hits by Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Stan Freberg and Johnny Standley are available in this format. Theoretically, you could play Capitol O.C. 45's on a conventional spindle, then push out the triangular center and play the record on an RCA 45 dropchanger. Unfortunately, once the center piece was pushed out, it stayed out. I once found a Kay Starr Capitol O.C. 45 with the center piece pushed out - and a Webster adapter shoved in. Even though Capitol discontinued their O.C. 45 line in 1953, the format found a home in Europe, where many labels produced 45's with detachable centers up until the 1990's.

Meanwhile, Webster adapters were showing their limitations. They were too expensive to manufacture, they were too difficult to insert and remove from the 45's, and they were almost useless on dropchangers - the top record of the stack didn't have enough friction from the records below it to adequately spin at 45rpm, making Dinah Shore sound like Howard Keel. North American Philips (Norelco) came out with a triangular adapter, similar to the leftover pieces from a Capitol "O.C. 45." It didn't sell well in America, but can be found often in Canada.

The plastic adapter soon replaced the dying Webster brand, thanks to the work of Tom Hutchison, a New Jersey technician and inventor. In the 1950's, Hutchison worked at the Walco Corporation, designing and selling phonograph needles, cartridges, cleaning solutions, cleaning cloths and tonearm brushes for the top music companies of the time, when he received a phone call from RCA president David Sarnoff.

Sarnoff wanted Hutchison to produce a better 45 insert that would reduce slippage on dropchangers. Using Sarnoff's ideas, Hutchison developed a plastic adapter with large raised bumps along the surface. These "drive pins" allowed consumers to stack multiple 45's on thin-spindle dropchangers, and as each record dropped, the drive pins would interlock with the adapter below it - making each record spin at 45 RPM, from the first disc to the last. "Sarnoff gave me a couple of ideas," said Hutchison, now retired and living in New Jersey. "He gave me some prints and fiber samples, and asked our company to design a better adapter than was on the market at that time. So my plastic molder worked on it, and we came up with this plastic adapter with interlocking drive pins. I sold my adapters so cheap, I had an advantage over them. My molder also sold to Mattel Toys, so Mattel would supply him with the plastic in silos. We purchased their surplus plastic, 5,000 pounds a week, so we kept the costs very low - almost 1/10th of a cent per adapter in the 1950's. I paid $1.50 per thousand to have them made, and I sold them for $2.50 per thousand, in lots of one million."

Other audio supply companies, like Duotone and Recoton, added little bumps to their adapter lines, but the Hutchison adapter already had a foothold on consumers with dropchanger turntables. "The second record drops down onto the smooth plastic of the top record, and if the record was styrene, or of very light vinyl, there wasn't enough friction to keep the records spinning at the proper speed. With my adapters and the drive pins, the records spun at the same speed from top to bottom. My drive pins even interlocked with Recoton adapters. The secret was to sell them cheap enough, so that nobody could change their molds. They couldn't afford to. Let's go back 30 years, let's say it would take $100 a cavity to change. That was too much money for them. That's why the Tandy Corporation - Radio Shack to you - bought 50 million a year from me!"

Hutchison later became vice-president of the Duotone Corporation, at which time the company briefly experimented with a six-pronged plastic adapter. "It took too much plastic to make these adapters. And the mold collapsed from the pressure of 50,000 pounds of plastic, the back of the mold buckled. When that happened, then the mold halves don't come together, and the adapters were loaded with excess flash, which had to be trimmed out by hand."

Originally Hutchison pressed his adapters in four-cavity, eight-pound molds. By the 1970's, his company's molds pressed 48 adapters at a time, selling millions of inserts each month. Each adapter had a production number near the hole, corresponding to its position in the injection mold. But collectors looking for a complete production run won't find those high numbered adapters - Hutchison didn't want his competition gaining any advantage, so he duplicated cavity numbers on his production run, so a #3 adapter may actually be #46 in the mold.

Some phonograph companies manufactured their own plastic adapters. Sears had a line of custom Duotone-style spacers imprinted with SILVERTONE, the name for their line of record players. The red adapter seen here was actually manufactured for Philco drop-changer phonographs - the spindle actually had a second post which rotated with the platter. When the record dropped onto the turntable, the second post threaded one of the lug holes on the Philco adapter. In theory, this should have worked - as long as the holes were exactly lined up. Oftentimes the secondary post actually knocked the adapter off the record, causing the disc to land on the turntable in an awkward alignment.

Metal adapters reappeared in the 1970's, when the Pfanstiehl Corporation built a high-end single adapter. The steel "Push-Up" adapters would snap into a 45, keeping the hole edges pristine and safe. Pfanstiehl adapters were perfect for remixers and DJ's, who could scratch and mix 7-inchers without fear of an adapter popping out and wrecking the mix. Because of their metal construction, however, the "Push-Ups" cost more to manufacture than did the plastic adapters, and were only bought for permanent installation into 45's.

In 1983, the arrival of the compact disc crushed the demand for 45 adapters. Many of the companies in the adapter business - Recoton, Duotone, Gemini, Pfanstiehl - ceased production of inserts. Demand for the Hutchison adapter dropped from 20 million units per year to zero. "It was our own fault," said Hutchison. "We tried to produce at low cost and sell for low profit, to beat competition from the market, and to sell inserts as a loss leader - 5 adapters for 25╒ a pack. I had distributors that were used to paying $6 per thousand. Now, a normal run of 250,000 adapters, my molders want $250 to set the machine up, plus $6 or $7 per thousand, my cost would end up rising to $14 per thousand, and they didn't like it."

In 1995, Hutchison received a phone call from the manager of the Black Crowes. The Crowes were headed on tour, and wanted to create some special customized adapters that could be tossed into the stands as souvenirs, like guitar picks. "He wanted the band's name to be in raised plastic around the spindle hole. They didn't want them just as 45 inserts, they wanted to toss them into the crowds for free. I told them it would cost too much money. The molds themselves would have to be rebuilt, at $1,000 per cavity. I said I would do it if they paid me in advance - because how would I collect from them? If they didn't pay, I was stuck. I told the manager to just toss balloons into the crowd, it would cost less."

Today, adapters can still be found in flea markets and collector shows, often still wedged in the records like a key in an ignition. If you want new adapters, some Goldmine advertisers still sell plastic adapters at a minimal price - roughly $2 for a pack of 10. The Recoton adapter - essentially a Hutchison adapter without the extra bracing struts - has evolved into a logo for companies like Derivative Records and Spin magazine.

Oh, the Black Crowes did get their special adapter, and it's available as a bonus gift in the 7-inch vinyl boxed edition of their Three Snakes and a Charm album. And if you ever wanted to use those Black Crowes adapters on your dropchanger... the drive pins on the Hutchison adapter will still interlock with it.

Source [Goldmine Collectormania Archive] by Chuck Miller


  1. I want to point out that Mr. Hutchison died at the age of 83 back in 2002. He was married to my first cousin Linda.

  2. Hi Chuck,

    A great feature and history. Anyone with an interest even in todays music should pay they’re respects to the start of popular music culture… the 7″ 45 and it core helper… the 45 adapter.

    45 Central has 10 special designs

    Please get in touch, would be intrested in working on a major printed editorial for a major magazine or newspaper.

    Best Regards

    Simon Strutt - Founder & 45 Player

    45 CENTRAL
    Original Turntable Adapters.
    For Real Players.
    T +44 (0) 7813 141606

  3. From 1952 to 1953, "optional center" 45's were also pressed by Columbia Records' Hollywood, CA plant, but they were discontinued around the same time as Capitol had.