My Vintage Webster-Chicago Audio Wire Recorder
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.
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. My father gave me his old Webster Wire Recorder. It was the Model 80, which was built around 1947.
I took care of it after my father gave it to me. I didn't want to lose the ability to use it whenever the feeling struck me to hear old family recordings. So 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 works. It gave me many years of enjoyment just by finding 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. But I won't get into those technical details here.
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...
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 of Having Saved Old Family Recordings
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.
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.
Since it functions with its built-in mic, there's no issue with connecting wires, eliminating problems matching vintage electronics with an audio connection. It's great for digitizing any type of audio.
This fellow made a good video showing the Webster playing
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.
But I am lucky to have my Webster still functioning. One reason is probably that I took care of the way I stored it. I made sure I didn’t leave it in the damp basement or in the cold attic. I kept it where the temperature and humidity were controlled.
Another thing that I am sure helped was that I powered it up every once in a while, even if 10 years passed between plugging it in and playing it for a while. That helped. It keeps the electronics from drying out. It helps the capacitors continue to function.
When you plug in an old electronic device after decades it is possible that you have a capacitor explode. I guess I had powered it up often enough to avoid this. Today all our electronic gadgets are solid state. We don’t even use that term any more. It’s all IC’s now, Integrated Circuits.
Technology is changing. And things become vintage items over time. I see a number of these Webster Wire Recorders on eBay. It's amazing that people still have them around and that some of them still work.
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