... rand's web page

the obligatory personal stuff


Slip Knot Audio:
rand's Wire Recorder Page

Wire recorders are a fascinating piece of dead media. The technology was first developed in the 1890s for recording Morse Code and simple voice messages and dictation. By World War II, wire recording had progressed to a point where it could be used to reproduce a fuller range of audio. While the Germans more fully developed tape recording, equipping individuals in the field with portable units for dictation and radio stations with high-quality tape recorders for broadcast use, the Americans tapped into wire recording technology to provide portable recording technology for Allied soldiers.

After the War and with further refinement, wire recorders were successfully offered for sale to the American public as home entertainment devices. At this time, the only commercially available recording medium were acetate coated recording blanks that would only last a few moments. Spools of wire offered high quality recording for up to one hour.

Several models of wire recorders were offered by Sears, AirKing, and, most commonly, Webster-Chicago and the machines were fairly common for a few years. They were used in offices for dictation, in homes for recording special events or material from records and the radio, and by researchers for field recordings of folk music or interviews. Many low-cost machines designed for dictation did produce low quality sound, spawning myths about the technology, but higher-end units were capable of surprisingly good quality, as good or even better than early consumer tape machines.

As tape recording overtook the home audio recording market in the early 1950's, wire recorders were put away in basements and garages and were mostly forgotten. Resurrecting an old machine and the accompanying wires is a fascinating look at the early post-War period.

The Lear Dynaport Wire Recorder

Bill Blodgett, a friend in Detroit, contacted me recently via email. He was coming for a visit and had a special gift -- a 1947 Lear Dynaport wire recorder, model WC-311-D, in wonderful condition. I had wanted a machine for some time and it was quite a surprise to have a good example of one of the high end recorders dropped in my lap.

The Dynaport is something like an early home entertainment system. It was the only wire recorder ever sold by Lear (later to become more famous for manufacturing jet aircraft).

In two parts that can be disassembled and packed for transport, the machine includes an amplifier and AM radio tuner in the lower section and a 78 rpm record player and wire recorder in the top section. The unit originally came with a microphone and could also record from external devices through an input on the back of the machine.

The unit includes a microphone for recording, a bass and treble control, and a level meter. The front panel also includes a lock mechanism and a key that can be used to disable the recording functions of the unit.

Operation is done through a set of buttons on the front panel -- you simply press the button associated with the input you wish to listen to (wire, radio, phono) or record from. The terminology for home recording was still evolving at the time, so the unit is marked "listen" for functions we would refer to as "play" in modern units. There is no "stop" button for the wire section; pushing the "radio" button puts the unit in stop mode.

To play a wire, simply place the spool on the right spindle, label side up, so that the wire unspools counterclockwise. The wire is threaded through the playback and recording heads to wrapped around the rim of the turntable, which doubles as a take-up reel. Some of the wires included their original leader, a length of cotton thread tied at the beginning of the wire to allow for easy handling during use.

The wires run through the machine at about 15 inches per second. As the wire is unspooled, the heads of the unit actually move up and down to evenly distribute the wire on the take up reel.

view a Quicktime movie of the recording heads (20 seconds, 100 kb)

Most wire recorders include a mechanical counter mechanism that can be used to index the recorded material. When placing a new wire on the machine, the counter is set to zero and it counts the seconds and minutes as the wire plays. Unfortunately, none of the wires found with this machine included any kind of written index.

Bill had a Hammond Organ technician give the Dynaport an electronics overhaul and it still records and plays back perfectly. The microphone is inoperable since the elements dried up some years ago, but recording can be done with a modern microphone, from the radio or phonograph, or with an external device plugged into the back of the machine.

To record from the phonograph, a wire is placed on the machine in the normal manner. The record is placed on top of the take-up reel, which is designed to always move at 78 rotations per minute.

The Wires

This particular recorder originally came from an owner who was apparently in Grand Rapids, Michigan. (Bill bought it in Traverse City, Michigan, and the original owner may have settled there when he retired.) It included about a dozen spools of wire -- recordings of children's birthdays and Christmas, songs dubbed from the radio and 78's, and even a couple of entire radio programs.

Among the most unusual material found on the wires were a tenth anniversary program prepared at radio station WLAV (a fifteen minute comedy sketch with music and sound effects that was probably prepared for a station party and never broadcast), a half-hour religious program by a Grand Rapids minister about the communist witch hunts, and an almost complete live early morning country music radio show from WLS, Chicago.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the recorder is actually hearing what an average person might listen to during the era. On the wires, you can hear songs by Elvis and other rock and roll artists intermixed with pop, light classical, big band, or even polkas.

Wire Audio Samples

Army Story
MP3, 180 kb

An odd little bit of audio between a couple of songs on one of the wires.
Kiss of Fire
MP3, 92 kb
One of the wires included a few tunes by someone practicing on the accordian.

Nursery Rhyme
MP3, 100 kb

A typical snippet of the kids; the wires also includes some Christmas audio and a birthday party when these kids were younger.
Garage Band
MP3, 124 kb
The wire recorder must have been passed along to a teenager in the 1960's or early 70's. This is an excerpt from a twenty minute segment of some type of garage band rehearsing. Anyone know who it might be?
MP3, 1.3 Mb
Most of the wires consist of songs recorded off of the radio. The eccentric range is quite amazing -- this sampler is drawn from four wires and gives you an idea of the range of material on the wires. The file starts out with a Tetley tea commercial jingle and ends with a station ID from WOOD. (And, yes, one does hear rock n' roll mixed in with pop, classical, jazz and polkas just like this on the wires.) You can also hear how these fifties and early sixties tunes originally on the radio before they were remastered and remixed (some say ruined) when released on CD.
Uncle Mistletoe
MP3, 112 kb
One of the wires contained Christmas music recorded off of the radio. Nowadays, there's a kind of standard set of holiday songs that are played each year on the radio. You hear some on the wire (such as Bing Crosby's "White Christmas" and Nat King Cole's "The Christmas Song", the year it first was released), but there are many more that were unfamiliar to me. This is a clip of one of these unknown holiday songs, "Uncle Mistletoe". It was made popular by Chicago kids show host Johnny Coons in the 1950s (see http://www.chicagotelevision.com/johnnycoons.htm)
WLAV Anniversary
MP3, 296 kb
One of the more unusal items on the wires was a fifteen minute 10th anniversary show for WLAV in Grand Rapids. This was probably recorded from a tape or acetate of the show. It was likely never broadcast, since it seems to poke fun at the station owner and different people who worked behind the scenes at the station.
MP3, 100 kb
From the end of a religious broadcast on one of the wires, a period station ID for WLAV, Grand Rapids.
Smile Awhile, WLS
MP3, 956 kb
One of the wires contained over a half hour of a morning show, "Smile Awhile", broadcast on WLS Chicago probably in the early 1950's. The show featured a country band performing live in the studio. These are two excerpts of the show edited together in one file.


Handling the Wires

I dubbed all of the wires to CD through a jack on the front of the unit. (Luckily, this jack provided a line level output that worked well with my equipment.) Actually playing the wires, however, presented some unique problems.

Some of the wires were covered with dust and probably some corrosion that had built up over the years. The heads of the unit needed to be cleaned with a length of cotton thread dipped in rubbing alcohol after each spool was played.

The wire itself is quite small -- finer than human hair -- and has a tendency to kink and tangle if it breaks. The only way to splice the wire is to cut off the excess tangles and piece the ends together with a slip-knot. The patched section isn't audible when it passes through the playback head and since the wire moves at 15 inches per second only a small part of the audio will be missing.

The recorder really zips along during rewind, the heads again moving up and down to evenly distribute the wire on the spool. You want to stay out of way in case the wire breaks -- it can rewind a 1500 foot spool of wire in just a minute and a half.

A couple of the spools had become bent over time, the bottom of the metal spool scrapping on the machine and producing distorted sound. When this happened, I flipped the spool upside down so that the wire unspooled in the opposite direction -- this didn't seem to have any negative impact on the sound since the heads wrap around the wire as it plays.

I always made sure to listen to the wire through to the end. In a couple of cases, a considerable length of blank audio was recorded at the end of a program and something unusual that was previously recorded on the wire would be revealed.

The wires were in wonderful condition, considering their age. As the audio samples on this page indicate, the quality was quite good. Only on a couple of wires was print through noticeable, where adjoining lengths of wire magnetized other sections, producing a kind of echo effect. There would be only one or two breaks during playback on about every other spool.

Links on Wire Recorders

History of wire recorders

Guide to Storage and Handling of Wire Recordings by Gretchen King, Univ of Washington

Web page on European wire recorders

Pictures of wire recorders

A page on Webster Chicago wires

Article from the "Lansing State Journal" on a wire collector

Article from the "Detroit Free Press" on wire collector

1.23.03, updated 8.06.08