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A Peirce 55-B dictation wire recorder from 1945.
First US patent for a magnetic recorder; Valdemar Poulsen, inventor.

Wire recording is a type of analogue audio storage in which the recording is made onto thin steel or stainless steel wire.



The first wire recorder was the Valdemar Poulsen Telegraphone of the late 1890s, and wire recorders for law/office dictation and telephone recording were made almost continuously by various companies (mainly the American Telegraphone Company) through the 1920s and 1930s. These devices were mostly sold as consumer technologies after World War II.

Widespread use of the wire recording device occurred within the decade spanning from 1940 until 1960, following the development of inexpensive designs licensed internationally by the Brush Development Company of Cleveland, Ohio and the Armour Research Foundation of the Armour Institute of Technology (later Illinois Institute of Technology).[citation needed] These two organizations licensed dozens of manufacturers in the U.S., Japan, and Europe.[citation needed] Wire was also used as a recording medium in black box voice recorders for aviation in the 1950s.

Consumer wire recorders were marketed for home entertainment or as an inexpensive substitute for commercial office dictation recorders, but with the development and sales of consumer magnetic tape recorders starting in 1948, quickly drove wire recorders from the market.[citation needed]

Magnetic format

Poulsen's original telegraphone and indeed all very early recorders placed the two poles of the record/replay head on opposite sides of the wire. The wire was thus magnetised transversely to the direction of travel. This method of magnetization was quickly found to have the limitation that as the wire twisted, there were times when the magnetization of the wire was at right angles to the position of the two poles of the head and the output from the head fell to almost zero.

The development was to place the two poles on the same side of the wire so that the wire was magnetised along its length or longitudinally. Additionally, the poles were shaped into a 'V' so that the head wrapped around the wire to some extent. This increased the magnetising effect and also increased the sensitivity of the head on replay because it 'collected' more of the magnetic flux from the wire. This system was not entirely immune to twisting but the effects were far less marked.

The longitudinal method survives into magnetic tape recording to this day.

Media capacity and speed

Compared to later tape recorders, wire recording devices had a high media speed, made necessary because of the use of the solid metal medium. The wire reels were recorded or listened at nominally 24 inches per second (610 mm/s), making a typical one-hour reel 7,200 feet (approx. 2195 m) long. This enormous length was possible on a spool of under 3 inches in diameter because the wire was nearly as fine as hair. Since the wire was pulled past the head by the take up spool, the wire speed increased as the diameter of the spool increased.

Wires also came in different lengths, such as 15 or 30 minutes. After recording or playback, the reel had to be rewound, because, unlike the later tape recorders, the take up reel on most wire recorders was not removable. In practice, the fine wire easily became tangled and snarls were extremely difficult to fix. Editing could be accomplished by cutting the wire and tying the ends together, with the knot sometimes welded with the tip of a lit cigarette. Although wire was difficult to edit, it provided tremendous advantages over trying to edit material recorded on transcription discs, which was usually accomplished with stopwatches, multiple turntables and a lot of patience. The first regularly scheduled network radio program produced and edited on wire was CBS' "Hear it Now" with Edward R Murrow. Recording wire would run through a slit on the record and playback head which on many machines moved up and down like a fishing reel to ensure the wire was placed on the take-up reel evenly (on high-end machines moving wire guides performed this function). Tied-knot edits would cause the wire to pop out of the slit in the head, but it would drop back into the slit after the edit passed. This brief dropout could make editing music problematic.


The audio fidelity of wire recording made on one of these post-1945 machines was comparable to a 78-rpm record or one of the early tape recorders. The Magnecord Corp. of Chicago briefly manufactured a high fidelity wire recorder intended for studio use, but soon abandoned the system to concentrate on tape recorders.

Some wire recorders were also used in aircraft cockpit voice recorders and flight data recorders beginning in the early 1940s, mainly for recording radio conversations between crewmen or with ground stations. In this capacity, being somewhat more resilient than magnetic tape, wire recorders survived somewhat later, being manufactured for this purpose through the 1950s and remaining in use somewhat later than that. There were also wire recorders made to record data in satellites and other unmanned spacecraft of the 1950s to perhaps the 1970s.

Notable uses

In 1944 at the Middle East Radio Station of Cairo, Egyptian composer Halim El-Dabh used wire recorders as a tool to compose music.[1]

In 1946 David Boder, a professor of psychology at Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago, traveled to Europe to record long interviews with "displaced persons" -- most of them Holocaust survivors. Using an early wire recorder from the Armour Research Foundation, Boder came back with the first recorded Holocaust testimonials and in all likelihood the first recorded oral histories of significant length.[2]

In 1946, Norman Corwin and his technical assistant, Lee Bland, took a wire recorder on their One World Flight, a round-the-world trip subsidized by friends of Wendell Wilkie and patterned after Willke's own 1942 trip. Corwin documented the post-war world and used his recordings in a series of 13 broadcast documentaries on CBS—which were also among the first broadcast uses of recorded sound allowed by the radio networks.[3][4]

In 1949 at Fuld Hall in Rutgers University, Paul Braverman made a 75-minute recording of a Woody Guthrie concert using a wire recorder. The recording only came to light in 2001, and appears to be the only surviving live recording of Woody Guthrie; it was restored over several years and released on CD in 2007. The CD, The Live Wire: Woody Guthrie in Concert 1949, subsequently won the 2008 Grammy Award for Best Historical Album.[5]

In 1952, the Harvard physics department's musical variety show The Physical Revue, written and performed by Tom Lehrer, was recorded on wire; this recording was recently rediscovered and made available online.

See also


  1. ^ Gluck, Bob. Conversation with Halim El-Dabh, EMF Institute
  2. ^ Marziali, Carl (2001-10-26) "Mr. Boder Vanishes." "This American Life"
  3. ^ Bannerman, R. LeRoy. 1986. On A Note of Triumph: Norman Corwin and the Golden Years of Radio. University of Alabama Press.
  4. ^ Ehrlich, Matthew C. 2006. "A Pathfinding Radio Documentary Series: Norman Corwin's One World Flight." American Journalism, 23(4), 35-59.
  5. ^ THE LIVE WIRE: WOODY GUTHRIE IN PERFORMANCE 1949 has WON the 2008 GRAMMY for Best Historical Album, Woody Guthrie Foundation news release, 2008-02-10

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