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MMD > Archives > February 2000 > 2000.02.02 > 05Prev  Next

Magnetophone Tape Recorder
By Dan Wilson, London

In 000131 MMDigest Jim Crank mentioned the smuggling of a Magnetophone
tape recorder out of Germany after the war.  This must have been a
development of the original Magnetophone, which was a wire recorder,
equally hush-hush.

Curiously, though, the BBC had a Magnetophone wire recorder right
through the war, which had been borrowed for assessment from the radio
manufacturing arm of Standard Telephones & Cables of Enfield and
somehow not returned. The machine was brand new in 1939 and STC had
obtained it for tests.  MI6 in London had another and for some reason
asked the BBC never to mention theirs.

I had to repair two 1950s Siemens portable wire recorders in 1980 and
can attest from first-hand experience what they were like.  While the
wire was a durable medium, the great difficulty with it, unlike with
tape, was that since it would only pick up a signal properly where it
was touching the record head and the passage through the head couldn't
be made an "interference fit" (i.e., really really snug) so that it
could touch all the way round, it only played back properly when the
actual "record" surface on the wire happened to be touching the
playback head, which was less often than not.  To try and overcome
this, the wire was run at high speed so that the poor playback wasn't
much worse than the good playback.  The frequency response (balance of
high against low) remained highly variable.

So the machines were fine as long-play Dictaphones but poor for music
and the BBC used theirs (appropriately) to monitor German propaganda
broadcasts during the night so that people did not have to stay up for
them.  I am sure that if tape had not been invented for recording, some
means of making record heads a good fit on the wire would have been
devised.  But of course, wire was useless for splicing and editing.

The first tape tried after solid steel was paper.  In 1954 I held a
long tape correspondence with a friend who was a sergeant in the RAF
in Gibraltar.  Amazing, comic and expensive things kept happening on
the airfield there -- they were always "writing off" aircraft for the
weakest of reasons -- and it was important that I fed him with plenty
of tape.

Just at that time, there was a big release onto the market of early
paper recording tape, which was about a fifth of the price of the
plastic stuff.  It gave a very mushy performance and was little
stronger than party streamers, but was easily spliced and you could
tell quite well what was going on.  I bought reels of this and would
send him jazz broadcasts, hosted by the singer George Melly before he
conquered his speech defect, and he'd send them back bearing long tales
of flagrant military expenditure and mismanagement.

I still have them somewhere and suddenly I realise (if the recordings
are still on them) they're now extremely historic -- not that Gibraltar
(with which I have other contacts now) is any less comic.

Dan Wilson, London

(Message sent Wed 2 Feb 2000, 21:03:00 GMT, from time zone GMT.)

Key Words in Subject:  Magnetophone, Recorder, Tape

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