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My Vintage Webster-Chicago Audio Wire Recorder

Updated on July 25, 2016
Glenn Stok profile image

Glenn Stok likes to write about rare experiences, such as this one, in addition to sharing other curious aspects of life that he researches.

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.

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

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...

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 of Having Saved 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.

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


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    • Princessa profile image

      Wendy Iturrizaga 5 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!

    • Glenn Stok profile image

      Glenn Stok 5 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.

    • L.L. Woodard profile image

      L.L. Woodard 5 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 5 years ago from Long Island, NY

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

    • 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

    • Mattknowsthat profile image

      Matt 3 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?

    • Glenn Stok profile image

      Glenn Stok 3 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.

    • Glenn Stok profile image

      Glenn Stok 3 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.

    • Mattknowsthat profile image

      Matt 3 years ago from Lansing, Michigan

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

    • Shannon 3 years ago

      These are before my time- however, I am an archivist and need to know how to load the reel. Any place you can point me to about how to load the wire on? Thank you!

    • Glenn Stok profile image

      Glenn Stok 3 years ago from Long Island, NY

      Shannon - Wire reels can wily be damaged with improper use. You can find detailed information about using a wire recorder at videointerchange.com and scroll down to "Wire Recording" and click on that subtitle.

    • colorfulone profile image

      Susie Lehto 23 months 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.

    • Glenn Stok profile image

      Glenn Stok 23 months 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.

    • butch 15 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 15 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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