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My Vintage Webster-Chicago Audio Wire Recorder

Updated on March 27, 2017
Glenn Stok profile image

Glenn Stok has an interest in exploring interesting and unusual adventures, and he writes about it in a way that you can experience it too.

I still have my father's Vintage Webster-Chicago recorder that uses magnetic steel wire 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.

My Webster Wire Recorder Model 80. A Wire recording reel and the microphone are next to it. All pictures Copyright 2011 Glenn Stok
My Webster Wire Recorder Model 80. A Wire recording reel and the microphone are next to it. All pictures Copyright 2011 Glenn Stok | Source

Audio recording was done with steel wire reels before recording on magnetic tape. The method using wire was troublesome since it tended to break and couldn't be spliced back together.

The method of recoding on wire 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 on 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 then amplified for playback. The same method is used for tape recorders.

The reels, using stainless steel recording wire, provided up to one hour of audio recording per reel.

How did all this begin?

In 1899 Valdemar Poulsen, a Danish inventor, developed a device to magnetically record sound on steel wire. 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 Own 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.

I considered it to be obsolete. Even though I see some people selling them on eBay from time to time, most are non-functional. I'm lucky mine still works, although it recently developed an AC hum which is probably due to a dry 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 definitely progressed a lot since then. Imagine that my father recorded on wire. Here's a close-up photo of one of the wire reels.

Webster Wire Recording Reel
Webster Wire Recording Reel | Source
Bottom of Webster Wire Recording Reel showing 1 Hour recoding time.
Bottom of Webster Wire Recording Reel showing 1 Hour recoding time. | Source

Things sure have come a long way. As we all know, even magnetic tape saw it's 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 are 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. In order to make chips even smaller we'll find ourselves using bioelectrochemical recording. Oh! But I think I'm getting ahead of myself.

Nostalgia with Old Family Recordings

Webster Wire Recording Reel. The wire starts with a thread to help spool it onto the take-up reel.
Webster Wire Recording Reel. The wire starts with a thread to help spool it onto the take-up reel. | Source

My father loved to record classical music from the radio. Now I have dozens of wire reels with interesting and nostalgic broadcasts from the mid 1900’s.

A few of the wire reels 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 were recorded from that time period.

How I Converted Those Steel Wire Recordings to Digital

The old wire reels 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 great 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:
According to the Library of Congress, old time radio recordings made prior to 1978 are generally in the public domain.

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 and kill the whole thing.

I'm glad I digitized all the wire recordings my father made in order to preserve them. Since I made this video, my Webster developed an AC hum due to old age. It's amazing it lasted this long, probably due to the way I stored it. I made sure I didn’t leave it in the damp basement or in the 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 nice 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.

© 2011 Glenn Stok


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    • Glenn Stok profile image

      Glenn Stok 5 weeks ago from Long Island, NY

      Casey -

      My output switch also has 1,2 and 3. I never knew what the third one was. The second is for the output plug that goes to an amplifier speaker.

      My unit also developed a hub recently. It's an AC hum due to the can capacitors going bad.

      I digitized all my wire reels by placing a good mic next to the speaker. I know it's a cop out, but it worked. I didn't want to fiddle with direct audio wiring because it would have been too complicated matching the impedance and handling the different wattage and current with the connection. Unless you are good with those things, I recommend you get a good mic that connects to a USB port and do it like I did.

    • profile image

      Casey 5 weeks ago

      My father recently gave me my grandparent's Webster Chicago Model 7. It is in amazing condition and works well except a hum. I read in the comments about the caps going bad and I will look into replacing them.

      My question is about the Output section. There are three choices. I assume they are selectable between the internal speaker, the output port on the front, but what would the third be? Also, what is the connector used on the front as the output? What format would translate from today's wiring schemes? Is it a tip/sleeve situation? I ask because I want to digitize the recordings I have. I would like to find a compatible connector then import through my DAW. Any info you have about finding or creating a new output cable is appreciated.

      These are amazing pieces of history.

    • Glenn Stok profile image

      Glenn Stok 5 weeks ago from Long Island, NY

      Wayne Warner - If you want to fix your unit for the purpose of transferring existing wire recordings, I would recommend getting a working unit. Many people are selling units on eBay. Just choose one that's listed as working. Fixing your old unit may not be guaranteed to be successful, but you could try to contact people selling units on eBay for those parts if that's the path you want to take.

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      Wayne Warner 5 weeks ago

      are you aware of anyone who has parts for Webster Chicago wire recorders? We are trying to find idler drives for 180-1. It belongs to a church archives, and they are anxious to put it in working order to transfer sermons, etc. A few years ago someone told of a person who could restore the rubber parts. Does anyone know about this process and whether it is reliable. Thanks.

    • Glenn Stok profile image

      Glenn Stok 7 weeks ago from Long Island, NY

      Looty, It sounds like you have some interesting leftover items there. I would recommend being very careful if you want to try plugging that unit in after not bring used for 50 years. The capacitors may explode. I kept mine running by using it at least one a year since childhood. Applying power can actually save the electronics from wearing out. But even doing that, now the capacitors dried up — causing an AC hum. In your case it's probably all dried up by now, sad to say.

      Without knowing what items you actually have I can't say what else to do. If you want to try to find other people to contact, take a look at equivalent items being sold on eBay. Try to touch base with those sellers.

    • profile image

      Looty 7 weeks ago

      My grand father used to work on wire recorders for GE and the Air Force. My folks still have a bit of some of his old recorders, test recordings, random spools, blueprints, notes, manuals and other items of interest. I have a commercially made version along with what I think was one he built in the the lab, for it has no manufacture marking, TM or other indicators of manufacture. It is still loaded with a spool of wire. I have never played or even turned it on. It is missing its power cable.

      Wondering if you could give me some direction on how to test if these items still work, they have not been switched on in over 50 years. Any info or help would be grand. Also if you know of any folks in the Atlanta or Syracuse areas (where we live), that I could reach out to and share my stuff, that would be grand.

    • Glenn Stok profile image

      Glenn Stok 2 months ago from Long Island, NY

      Neil Robar, It's impossible to guess what could be causing a short in your wire recorder that you said blows a fuse when you turn it on. Your best bet would be if you can find someone local who repairs old tube electronics.

    • Glenn Stok profile image

      Glenn Stok 3 months ago from Long Island, NY

      Callie, As I mentioned in this article, my unit recently developed an AC hum, so playback is terrible now. Converting to MP3 wirh quality is no longer possible. I'm glad I converted mine before the unit started failing. You might try asking people who are selling working units on eBay.

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      Callie 3 months ago

      I have acquired 5 reels of a 1950's family gatherings which my father recorded. They would be the highlight of a family reunion this summer. Can you transfer them to a CD or MP3 player. What would be the cost and time frame. Thank you.

    • Glenn Stok profile image

      Glenn Stok 3 months ago from Long Island, NY

      Gary, Look for similar items on eBay and compare to find out what people are getting for it. You can do an advanced search on eBay and select "sold items" to see what already sold rather than what people are just asking for. Many wire recorders on eBay have cases that are in poor condition, so that shouldn't matter so much. Since it's working, you're ahead of the others if you decide to sell it on eBay. Take good pictures from all angles and write a good description. Good luck it it.

    • profile image

      Gary 3 months ago

      I have a Sears Silvertone Model 7086 Wire recorder with radio and phonograph that was my Grandfather's. Mechanically everyhing works but the cabinet is in just fair condition. I could not find a date anywhere on the unit. Does this have any monetary value?

    • Glenn Stok profile image

      Glenn Stok 5 months ago from Long Island, NY

      Thanks for that very nice comment Bob Smith. I never had luck repairing a broken wire with that square knot method. It gets stuck in the play head and rips the wire again. My conclusion was that when a wire rips, it's a done deal. I do believe the AC hum that started is a dried capacitor. You're right about the need to keep these things. They are a wonderful memory of past electronic successes.

    • profile image

      Bob Smith 5 months ago

      I just read this article and found it interesting. I recently purchased a wire recorder, and I have done some research. If you ever find that your recording wire has broken, the manual for the wire recorder says to tie the wire in a simple square knot to repair it! Much easier than splicing tape, I think. Also, the cause of your AC hum might be capacitors or maybe a tube going out. You can still get capacitors to re-cap the device if you wish, and you can get NOS tubes to use for it. It is a quite unique device, and I believe as many of them should be kept working as possible. It's a shame to see how many things like this are just thrown out. Thanks, and good luck with your recorder!

    • Glenn Stok profile image

      Glenn Stok 6 months ago from Long Island, NY

      Thanks Jesse. Many of these things are nostalgic for me too. My Webster recently developed an AC hum. Guess it's getting old now! lol.

    • Jesse Drzal profile image

      The Write Life 6 months ago from The United States

      Glenn, absolutely incredible article you have written here. I love old audio equipment like this including tape decks and 8 track, really anything related. I also learned some things I did not know. Thank you for sharing!

    • Glenn Stok profile image

      Glenn Stok 23 months ago from Long Island, NY

      Butch - If you don't need a working unit because you just want it for parts, then go for it if it's not expensive. I see many people selling them on eBay for between $50 and $200, depending on the condition. That should give you an idea of the value.

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      butch 23 months ago

      hi-- thx for the interesting info! i just saw one of these in an antiques store and at first thought it was a tape recorder...then looked closer and saw the wire! i had heard of them but never saw one. do you think it has any value as-is? this one had the cover which had 6 (?) more small reels attached to the inside as well as a flap behind which held the mike. the price was fairly cheap. i make art 'robots' and was thinking of cannibalizing the machine for parts but dont wanna do that if it destroys a collectable piece! thank you, butch

    • Glenn Stok profile image

      Glenn Stok 2 years ago from Long Island, NY

      colorfulone - I don't know anyone else who knew of it either, Susie. I always have fun showing it to my friends. Magnetic tape was so much easier to use. Wire tended to break too easily.

    • colorfulone profile image

      Susie Lehto 2 years ago from Minnesota

      I do not believe I had ever heard of a wire recorder before this, Glenn.

      Its news to me and interesting. When I was a child, I got a magnetic tape recorder as a gift. Kind of wish I still had that in good shape.

    • Mattknowsthat profile image

      Matt 4 years ago from Lansing, Michigan

      Thank you Glenn, that sounds perfect. I look forward to hearing from you.

    • Glenn Stok profile image

      Glenn Stok 4 years ago from Long Island, NY

      Matt - the email system in HubPages is not working. I'll have to try sending you contact info again tomorrow.

    • Glenn Stok profile image

      Glenn Stok 4 years ago from Long Island, NY

      Matt - Yes I still have it. I can record your wire reel into an MP3 file and email it to you. Then you can burn it into a DVD yourself or just save it to play on your computer. I will send you my contact info in a separate email via HP so we can discuss. I can't guarantee the quality of the recording you have, however.

    • Mattknowsthat profile image

      Matt 4 years ago from Lansing, Michigan

      What a stroke of luck, I just picked through an old box of pictures and found a recorded wire reel from one of my grandparents. After googling around, I happened to find your Hub. Nice to see that your hub showed up on page one of the google results. Now for the obvious questions; do you still have the recorder, and if I sent this reel to you with a few $$ could you record it on another medium for me?

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      Gaylord Ewing 4 years ago

      I've enjoyed your write-up on the Webster-Chicago 180 wire recorder.

      I have 4-wire recorders in my collection of antique/vintage recorders.

      And yes I even have a few disc-recorders. My very first recorder was a Webster-Chicago Model 80 wire recorder. Certainly had a lot of fun with that recorder. I actually wore-out the recorder-head because of using it so much. I now have a Stereo-Digital Recorder,that I use to record pipe-organ recitals/concerts with. Best regards, Gaylord Ewing

    • Glenn Stok profile image

      Glenn Stok 6 years ago from Long Island, NY

      L.L. Woodard, I'm glad you enjoyed it. Thanks for visiting.

    • L.L. Woodard profile image

      L.L. Woodard 6 years ago from Oklahoma City

      Enjoyed learning about the wire recorder. Had never heard of one before, but now I am informed.

    • Glenn Stok profile image

      Glenn Stok 6 years ago from Long Island, NY

      Princessa, thanks for checking out my Hub. I am pleased to have participated in the HubMob topic this week.

    • Princessa profile image

      Wendy Iturrizaga 6 years ago from France

      Now I know what a wire recorder is! Thanks for an informative hub, how wonderful having kept the one that belonged to your father and being able to hear all those fantastic childhood memories... I am jealous!