Laying down sound: early recording inventions from wire to tape

By Museum for Communication Frankfurt, Museum Foundation Post and Telecommunication

1898 konstruiert Valdemar
Poulsen das erste Gerät zur elektromagnetischen Aufzeichnung von
Schall – das „Telegraphon“. Er entdeckt damit die Magnetaufzeichnung – die Vorrausetzung
für heutige Festplatten oder Magnetstreifen auf unseren Kreditkarten. Aus dieser Erfindung
entwickeln sich später erste Geräte zur Aufzeichnung von Telefongesprächen und
schließlich das Tonbandgerät und die Compact Cassette.

Portrait photograph of the inventor Valdemar Poulsen in his wireless telegraphy station (1912) by Valdemar Poulsen (1869 - 1942)Museum for Communication Frankfurt, Museum Foundation Post and Telecommunication

Valdemar Poulsen was a test engineer at the Copenhagen telephone company. In 1898 he designed the first device for the electromagnetic recording of sound—the "Telegraphone."

Wire recording device, a rotor telegraphone (also called a rotor wire telephonograph) for recording speech on steel wires, from the Paris World Exhibition in 1900 (1900) by Mix & Genest, Telephon- und Telegraphenwerke Aktiengesellschaft (1879 - 1958)Museum for Communication Frankfurt, Museum Foundation Post and Telecommunication

After discovering magnetic recording in 1898, Poulsen worked on improving the telegraphone at the Mix & Genest company. Poulsen demonstrated his device in June 1900 at the Paris World Fair. Mix & Genest organized events where they demonstrated this device to invited participants.

Photograph, "Television test card for the Zweites Deutsche Fernsehen company (ZDF)" (c. 1955)Museum for Communication Frankfurt, Museum Foundation Post and Telecommunication

Kaiser Franz Joseph I. von Österreich spricht in ein Telegraphon von der Weltausstellung in Paris, 1900
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Telegraphone steel tape recorder (steel tape telephonograph) for magnetic recordings, from the Paris World Exhibition in 1900 (1900) by Mix & Genest, Telephon- und Telegraphenwerke Aktiengesellschaft (1879 - 1958)Museum for Communication Frankfurt, Museum Foundation Post and Telecommunication

In order to improve the volume and intelligibility of the magnetic recording, Poulsen experimented in May 1900 with different materials at Mix & Genest. In June 1900, Mix & Genest demonstrated this device with a wide steel band at the Paris World Fair in front of press representatives.

Telegraphon wire recording device for magnetic audio recording (1903) by Aktieselskabet Dansk Telegrafonfabrik (1903 - ?)Museum for Communication Frankfurt, Museum Foundation Post and Telecommunication

At the Paris World Fair, Poulsen's wire-tone recorders, "Telegraphones," were a sensation. All of today's magnetic recording methods, including hard drives and the magnetic strips on credit cards, are only possible thanks to Poulsen's invention.

Advertisement for shares in the American Telegraphone Co. (1906) by American Telegraphone Co. (1903 - 1917)Museum for Communication Frankfurt, Museum Foundation Post and Telecommunication

The American Telegraphone Company was founded in the US. It made millions of dollars through stock sales. Thousands of investors wanted to benefit from the success of the "next phonograph."

Advertisement from the American Telegraphone Co. for the "Telegraphone" wire recorder (1913) by American Telegraphone Co. (1903 - 1917)Museum for Communication Frankfurt, Museum Foundation Post and Telecommunication

But then the American Telegraphone Company got into financial difficulties and in 1908, a factory had to close. Only a few hundred Telegraphones were eventually sold in 1912 and the company went bankrupt in 1920.

Title page of the detective story "A Spool of Wire Speaks" in the Technical World Magazine, December 1906 (1906) by E. F. StearnsMuseum for Communication Frankfurt, Museum Foundation Post and Telecommunication

The Telegraphone could record telephone conversations, while the mechanical Phonograph could not. Another advantage of the wire recording devices was their long recording time of half an hour.

Telegraphon magnetic plate recorder/device for recording language on magnetic plates (1908 - 1909) by American Telegraphone Co. (1903 - 1917)Museum for Communication Frankfurt, Museum Foundation Post and Telecommunication

Peder Oluf Pedersen, a close associate of Valdemar Poulsen, patented the steel plate in 1901 as a "Magnetizable Body." This magnetic disk is the basis of today's computer hard drives. This recorder from 1908 has a magnetic disk diameter of 12 inches.

Magnetic plate telegraphone with user (1909) by American Telegraphone Co. (1903 - 1917)Museum for Communication Frankfurt, Museum Foundation Post and Telecommunication

In 1901, Peder Oluf Pedersen used a rotating steel plate for voice recording instead of steel wire. The large steel plate could store 4 minutes of audio. However, the magnetic disk recorder was virtually unsaleable: it cost $300, while a phonograph with the same playing time and a louder volume was available for only $70.

Emerson Record-O-Phone wire recorder/telegraphone as invented by Valdemar Poulsen (1924 - 1925) by Emerson Electric Co. [früher Emerson Electric Manufacturing Co.] (gegr. 1890); Record-O-Phone Co. (1924 - um 1927)Museum for Communication Frankfurt, Museum Foundation Post and Telecommunication

It was not until 1912 that the American Telegraphone Company could sell the first Telegraphone. The chemical company DuPont was the only company to establish a dictation center, in which letters were dictated over the phone. In 1920 the Telegraphone Company went bankrupt. After that, the Record-O-Phone company sold the devices.

Photograph of Hugh P. O'Reilly with telegraphone and amplifier (1924) by Hugh P. O'ReillyMuseum for Communication Frankfurt, Museum Foundation Post and Telecommunication

After the bankruptcy of the American Telegraphone Company, their former sales representative, H. P. O'Reilly, founded the Record-O-Phone Company in 1924. Meanwhile, amplifiers had been developed that solved the low volume issue—the hope of using the magnetic sound method had prevailed.

Photograph of the actress Norma Shearer during sound recordings on the telegraphone at the MGM studio (1927) by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc. (gegr. 1924)Museum for Communication Frankfurt, Museum Foundation Post and Telecommunication

Until the Second World War, the magnetic sound-recording process remained a niche use; the main customers were military and intelligence services. In 1927, the movie "The Jazz Singer" premiered: the era of movies with sound had begun. Norma Shearer, a Hollywood actress already known in the silent movie era, used the Telegraphone for test recordings in order to continue her career in "talkies."

Vox wire recording device, the "Silent telegrapher" (1925) by Vox Maschinen-AG (1921 - 1929); Vox Schallplatten- und Sprechmaschinen-AG (1921 - 1929)Museum for Communication Frankfurt, Museum Foundation Post and Telecommunication

The big coils of the Vox wire recording device held 17,700 feet of wire (5,400 m). That was enough for 30 minutes, because for good sound reproduction the steel wire had to be run through magnets at a rate of 10 feet per second (3 m/s).

However, commercial success was limited. Screenwriter Thea von Harbou and writer Hans Dominik used this method.

Textophon wire recording device with accessories (since 1932) by C. Lorenz AG (1906 - 1958); Textothek Glogowski & Co. GmbHMuseum for Communication Frankfurt, Museum Foundation Post and Telecommunication

In 1929 the textophone was developed by Semi Joseph Begun. The steel wire ran in cassettes, which made handling easier. According to advertising, possible applications were dictations, recording of telephone calls, and "acoustic protocols."

In the Third Reich, the Gestapo and security services were customers.

Magnecorder SD 1 F2 hi-fi wire recorder, Magnecord Inc. (1946 - 1956), 1946, From the collection of: Museum for Communication Frankfurt, Museum Foundation Post and Telecommunication
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The Magnecorder SD 1 was the only wire-set device with which high-quality studio recordings were possible.
Tape recorders with their superior plastic tape were not yet available.

Minifon P 55 wire recorder with case and accessories, Protona GmbH (1952 - 1967), c. 1958, From the collection of: Museum for Communication Frankfurt, Museum Foundation Post and Telecommunication
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The miniature wire-tone device was a sensation at the time. It was used to secretly record conversations. As an accessory, there were microphones camouflaged as wristwatches, pens, or tie pins.

Photograph of the inventor of the tape recorder, Fritz Pfleumer, with his tape recording machine (1931) by Fritz Pfleumer (1881 - 1945)Museum for Communication Frankfurt, Museum Foundation Post and Telecommunication

Tape coated with powdered-iron compounds was invented by the Dresden engineer Fritz Pfleumer in 1927. He used a paper strip, on which hardened steel dust was set with varnish. This magnetic tape was far superior in acoustic quality to the previously used steel wires. In 1928, Pfleumer built the first magnetic tape device with which the tapes could be played. 

AEG Magnetophon K4 magnetic recording device (since 1939) by Allgemeine Elektricitäts-Gesellschaft (AEG) (1887 - 1967)Museum for Communication Frankfurt, Museum Foundation Post and Telecommunication

Pfleumer sold the rights to his magnetic tape to AEG general electricity company. The German chemical company BASF developed the first plastic tape in 1935. The AEG Magnetophon K4 was in 1939 the first mass-produced tape recorder. With the ability to check the quality while recording and an AC bias, it was the first time recording was of studio quality.

AEG "b2" audio tape recorder, Allgemeine Elektricitäts-Gesellschaft (AEG) (1887 - 1967), 1943 - 1945, From the collection of: Museum for Communication Frankfurt, Museum Foundation Post and Telecommunication
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Tone recorder B was a military version of the AEG K4 tape recorder. During the Second World War, it was used in radio reconnaissance to record enemy radio communications.

AEG "f" audio tape recorder, Allgemeine Elektricitäts-Gesellschaft (AEG) (1887 - 1967), 1944, From the collection of: Museum for Communication Frankfurt, Museum Foundation Post and Telecommunication
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Tone recorder F was a version of tape recorder K4 for the German Wehrmacht. It monitored telephone conversations of resistance groups in France, Belgium, and the Netherlands.

AEG "b2" audio tape recorder converted for studio recording, Allgemeine Elektricitäts-Gesellschaft (AEG) (1887 - 1967); Funkberater Max Herrmann [später: PGH Funkberater Berlin-Pankow], 1943 - 1945, From the collection of: Museum for Communication Frankfurt, Museum Foundation Post and Telecommunication
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The military "tone recorder" had such a good sound quality that they were rebuilt after the end of the Second World War for studio tape recorders—like this device in East Berlin.

Photograph of 2 "b" sound recorders in Studio 1 at the Dresden regional broadcasting company, 1948 - 1949, From the collection of: Museum for Communication Frankfurt, Museum Foundation Post and Telecommunication
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In many post-war radio studios, reworked AEG type B2 tape recorders (Tonschreiber B2) were used as recording devices—as seen here at Landessender in the largely destroyed Dresden.

Saja MK4 tape recorder (1957) by Saja Sander & Janzen oHG [West] (1955 - 1960)Museum for Communication Frankfurt, Museum Foundation Post and Telecommunication

In the early 1950s, the tape recorder also conquered the domestic sphere. The devices were easy to use and delivered good music quality. Portable suitcase-sized devices corresponded with the economic prosperity of the time. But the devices were expensive: brand new, this device cost 398 DM—almost a full month's wages.

Advertisement for Grundig tape recorders with one-button operation: "It’s never been so easy" (1966) by Grundig Radio-Werke GmbH (1948 - 1971)Museum for Communication Frankfurt, Museum Foundation Post and Telecommunication

In the 1950s, the compact tape recorder boomed and by the 1960s, a quarter of all households had a tape recorder. Another revolution in listening habits had begun.

First cassette recorder for compact cassettes, Philips EL3300 (since 1963) by N.V. Philips’ Gloeilampenfabrieken (1912 - 1991)Museum for Communication Frankfurt, Museum Foundation Post and Telecommunication

In 1963, the Philips EL 3300 was the first recorder for a new recording medium: the compact cassette.

In the 1970s the inexpensive and robust cassette triumphed: young people could now easily record hit songs from the radio.

First Sony Walkman TPS-L2, Sony Corporation (gegr. 1946), 1979, From the collection of: Museum for Communication Frankfurt, Museum Foundation Post and Telecommunication
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The TPS-L2 was the first Walkman in 1979. The portable cassette player was an important status symbol and an emblem of a new way of life among young people in the 1980s.

PH-M88 mini-boombox with removable Walkman microcassettes, Fisher Electronics (1945 - 2012), 1981, From the collection of: Museum for Communication Frankfurt, Museum Foundation Post and Telecommunication
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Portable radio cassette recorders had their heyday in the 1970s and early 1980s. Radio recorders with large speakers and many additional functions were called ghettoblasters.

Apple iPod MP3 player, 1st generation with 5 GB hard disk (2001) by Apple Computer Inc. (gegr. 1976)Museum for Communication Frankfurt, Museum Foundation Post and Telecommunication

In 1998, portable MP3 players marked the end of the compact cassette. The 5 GB hard drive featured in the 2001 iPod held thousands of songs. The iPod brought the MP3 player back from the dark corners of online software piracy by connecting it to the iTunes music store. With iTunes, you could legally acquire digital music for the first time and listen to it on multiple players.

Credits: Story

Laying down sound: early recording inventions from wire to tape

A virtual exhibition by Museumsstiftung Post und Telekommunikation.

Curator: Frank Gnegel

All objects are part of the collection of Museumsstiftung Post und Telekommunikation.

www.museumsstiftung.de

Quellen:

Friedrich Engel, Gerhard Kuper,‎ Wulf Münzner und Frank Bell: Zeitschichten: Magnetbandtechnik als Kulturträger. Erfinder-Biographien und Erfindungen. Chronologie der Magnetbandtechnik und ihr Einsatz in der Fernseh-, Musik-, Film- und Videoproduktion, 2. Auflage, Potsdam 2010.

Frank Gnegel: "US-Patent 934 843, Seriennummer 125. Ein Magnetplatten-Rekorder in der Sammlung der MSPT“, in: Das Archiv. Magazin für Kommunikationsgeschichte, Bd. 1, 2018, S. 80-81.

David Morton: Off the Record. The Technology and Culture of Sound Recording in America. New Brunswick, 2000.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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