My Vintage Audio Wire Recorder by Webster-Chicago
I still have my father's Vintage Webster-Chicago recorder that uses magnetic steel wire spools (or reels). Here’s a little history of this antique audio recorder. I also included a video below that I made so you can hear it play.
Steel wire spools were used for audio recording before using magnetic tape. The method using wire was troublesome since it tended to break, and we couldn't splice it back together.
The method of recording with wire spools was similar to how tape recorders worked. While recording, the wire runs through a recording head that magnetizes the wire, creating an analog audio representation of the original sound with magnetically induced polarity along the wire.
When playing back recordings, the magnetic field on the wire induces an electric current as it passes through the head. That small current is amplified for playback. The same method is used for tape recorders.
The spools, using stainless steel recording wire, provided up to one hour of audio recording.
How did all this begin?
In 1899, Valdemar Poulsen, a Danish inventor, developed a device to record sound on steel wire magnetically. He patented it and named it the Telegraphone.
The steel wire was wrapped around a metal cylinder, which was limiting its length since it didn’t have a reel-to-reel wire transport system.
Later, Poulsen’s company made a version of a dictating machine that used reel-to-reel wire.
By 1947, wire recorders where common for all sorts of audio recording.
My Magnetic Wire Recorder
One well-known manufacturer of wire audio recorders was Webster-Chicago. My father gave me his old Webster Wire Recorder. It was the Model 80, which was built around 1947.
I didn't want to lose the ability to use it whenever the feeling struck me to hear old family recordings, so I took care of it. I kept it in a dry closet rather than storing it in a damp basement.
Once in a while, I'd take it out, plug it in, and check to be sure it still worked. It gave me many years of enjoyment, playing old recordings that my father had made.
These units are obsolete now. However, I see some people selling them on eBay from time to time. But most are non-functional. I'm lucky mine still works, although it recently developed an AC hum, which is probably due to a dried out capacitor.
How Audio Recording Technology Changed in 60 Years
Since the days of wire recorders, magnetic tape had gone through several transitions: Reel-to-reel, 8-track tape, cassettes. I still remember when Philips created the cassette tape in 1963.
During my childhood, we already had reel-to-reel tape recorders. The technology progressed a lot since then. Imagine that my father recorded on wire. Here's a close-up photo of one of the wire spools.
Things sure have come a long way. As we all know, even magnetic tape saw its days when technology changed to digital recording. Young kids would only know about iPods or MP3 players.
Those who are a little older might know about CDs, but even that is considered obsolete now. The storage medium of choice for any device today is flash memory chips.
Imagine how far we've come. I still remember 45 rpm records and LP vinyl records. Before we know it, we'll have a multicellular neural recorder. Or maybe a microfluidic recording device.
To make chips even smaller, we'll find ourselves using a bioelectrochemical recording device. Oh! But I think I'm getting ahead of myself.
Nostalgia with Old Family Recordings
My father loved to record classical music from the radio. Now I have dozens of wire spools with interesting and nostalgic broadcasts from the mid-1900s.
A few of the wire spools also contained some private family recordings of my parents playing with my sister and me when I was only a few months old. I could hear myself as an infant, making baby sounds. Those recordings are precious!
It’s interesting to hear my father’s voice and my mother’s foreign accent that she had when I was only four years old. It felt a little strange listening to their voices that they recorded from that time.
How I Converted Steel Wire Recordings to MP3
The old wire spools tended to break with repeated use. They can't be spliced back together as we can do with recording tape. So to have a permanently preserved copy of all those recordings, I converted them to digital files. I saved them on my computer with a backup copy on a USB memory stick.
There was no perfect way to connect the Webstar Wire Recorder to a USB port, so I used a Zoom H2n Mic/Recorder (available on Amazon) to create MP3 files. The Zoom H2n is a microphone that records WAV for MP3 formats onto a flash memory chip.
I avoided any problems matching vintage electronics with an audio connection by using the Zoom Mic. It's excellent for digitizing any type of audio. You just need to be sure not to have any background room noise while digitizing this way.
I made the following video to preserve this vintage relic. The wire recording you'll hear me play in this video is one my father made in 1956 off the radio.
My Webster Vintage Wire Recorder
A note about old time radio recordings:
Preserving Vintage Electronics Equipment
Old electronic circuits tend to die after so many decades. The old capacitors dry out. The coating on wires becomes brittle and falls off, exposing the wires until shorts develop.
I'm glad I digitized all the wire recordings my father made to preserve them. Since I made this video, my Webster developed an AC hum due to old age.
It's amazing that it lasted this long, probably due to the way I stored it. I made sure I didn’t leave it in a damp basement or a cold attic. I always kept it where the temperature and humidity were controlled.
Another thing that I'm sure had helped preserve its functioning was that I plugged it in and let it play every once in a while. That helped. It keeps the electronic components from drying out.
When you plug in an old electronic device after decades, it is possible that a capacitor can explode. I guess I had powered it up often enough to avoid this. Today all our electronic gadgets are solid-state. It’s all IC's now—Integrated Circuits.
It’s enjoyable to preserve these technological treasures so we can continue to experience the nostalgia and enjoy the memories of family recordings from the days before our present recording methods.
Questions & Answers
I have a Webster Model 80 wire recorder that belonged to my father. I am trying to get it to operate, but it will not turn on. The service manual says to replace the fuse and references a drawing which I do not have. Can you tell me where the fuse is located?
The fuse is located immediately behind the male plug connector at the back of the unit when looking at it from the rear. It’s a black cylindrical fuse container about 1-1/4 inches tall and attached to the metal chassis.
You’ll have to remove the unit from the wooden case. Turn it upside down with the rear facing you. Place the unit on a soft surface while upside down so you don’t damage the reel or recording assembly. The fuse will be on the right side behind the plug.
You’ll need to remove the black fuse holder by unscrewing the nut that holds it to the chassis. Once you remove it, the fuse will easily come out of it.Helpful 3
© 2011 Glenn Stok