A Tech That Didn’t Make It: Sound On Stainless Steel Wire

For a brief period in the 1940’s it might have been possible for a young enamored soul to hand his hopeful a romantic mix-spool of wire. This was right before the magnetic tape recorder and its derivatives came into full swing and dominated the industry thoroughly until the advent of the compact disk and under a hundred kilogram hard disk drives. [Techmoan] tells us all about it in this video.

The device works as one would expect, but it still sounds a little crazy. Take a ridiculously long spool of steel wire the size of a human hair(a 1 hour spool was 2.2km of wire), wind that through a recording head at high speed, magnetize the wire, and spool it onto a receiving spool.

If you’re really lucky the wire won’t dramatically break causing an irreversible tangle of wire. At that point you can reverse the process and hear the recorded sound. As [Techmoan] shows, the sound can best be described as… almost okay. Considering that its chief competition at the time was sound carved into expensive aluminum acetate plates, this wasn’t the worst.

The wire recorder lived on for a few more years in niche applications such as airplane black boxes. It finally died, but it does sound like a really fun couple-of-weekends project to try and build one. Make sure and take good pictures and send it in if any of you do.

61 thoughts on “A Tech That Didn’t Make It: Sound On Stainless Steel Wire

    1. hah! Now there’s an idea… would it be PWM, or PDM or something? (Maybe like what’s used on laser-disks?), or analog? intriguing, nonetheless… probably significantly more robust than magnetic.
      (I always thought stainless-steel was non-magnetic?)

    2. You probably don’t know about a ridiculous German medium: The Tefifon(e). It combines the disadvantages of LP records (you can’t record on, vibration sensitive, you can’t (really) pause them exactly) with the disadvantages of tape (you can’t skip to any position). It was an endless tape cartridge much like 8-track, but with grooves instead of magnetic. It sucked, it flopped.

      1. Yes, I watched that video. I own a Tefifon. I counted the grooves and you can skip at minimum the number of minutes a cassette has playtime in hours, ie. 4 minutes on a 4 hour tape. In a time where song playtimes of roughly 2 minutes, that means if you wanted to listen to a specific song, you had to listen to the end of the one before the one before the one you wanted to listen to as well as the entire song that went before the one you wanted to listen to if you got unlucky. You definitely had to look up the song that currently plays, skip one, look up the song that plays now and repeat until you are close to but before the desired track.
        Audio quality was slightly better than 45 singles made of plastic (these single sided which often had commercials on or came as postcards), but significantly less than our beloved vinyl 33 1/3 LPs. At least on my machine.

  1. I actually own a Webster-Chicago wire recorder, bequeathed to me by my late father (he picked it up sometime after WWII). The most impressive part to me, as a kid, was the “Magic Eye” VU meter on the model we owned. If the green glow touched at the top, you were talking too loud into the mic.

  2. My family had one of these machines when I was a kid back in the Fifties, and it was still functioning as far as I know up to the point where it was flood damaged and discarded (long after I had moved out on my own.) As I recall, the fidelity was rather impressive, certainly on a par with the tape machines of the day, but older recordings would be full of cross-talk as wires spooled together would pick up stray flux from others near them.

    1. I think the fidelity is great! Considering the quality that was available at the time. I think “almost okay” is selling it short. It’s “almost okay” by modern standards. How often can that be said of electrical equipment from 70 years ago?

      1. I think it depends on the model. The smaller ones that were meant for dictation didn’t have the same quality of audio the lager ones had, although I suspect most of that was due to having a better speaker.

      1. Herbert was actually pretty good about NOT explaining the black box. Fold-space was just fold-space. Shigawire recordings were just… shigawire recordings. There was the description of Leto II’s diary recorder transcribing his thoughts onto crystal sheets, but even then it wasn’t explained.

        Probably Foundation. That sounds more like Asimov’s bag. I have only just recently devoured the Dune septology, so I knew it wasn’t in there unless in one of Brian Herbert’s side books like House Harkonnen.

  3. I had a friend in high school who had one of these (his dad’s) – the sound was on a par with a reasonable 78RPM record, but…it worked, and there was no real alternative at the time.

  4. My grandfather – who worked at Philips HQ – had a wire recorder, IIRC a pre-war Grundig model. I heard it once and as far as i can remember it sounded really good compared to 70’s home recording equipment.

  5. I’ve got one here in my office (a Webster Model 181-1R from 1950, fwiw) and, to be fair, the sound is on par with any other early recording medium. I suspect that the actual sound is better than what I’m hearing, as I have yet to get the time to re-cap the unit (and like almost any good tube-driven unit of its time, its caps have dried out long ago). Once I re-cap it, I expect the fidelity to improve by an order of magnitude.

    Note to the curious: Don’t let the wire on the reels unspool in an uncontrolled fashion, as trying to get it wrapped back up neatly and without kinking is quite possibly one of the most difficult things you’ll do all day (and it may be the only thing you’ll do that day)!

  6. I have one, but the Swedish “Luxor” brand, and I’m not sure they are compatible.

    I actually have a lot of old radios, grammophones and reel to reel tape recorders, and compared to the tapes, the sound is great from the wire-player.

    Luxor actually made a lot of genious products, they combined the wireplayer with the grammophone, but the basemodel didn’t have the pickup for reckords, it was sold separate, and it was a direct plug in.

    Watch this clip: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r3q2MnzYWOk

  7. I have about a half-dozen of these, as the red cased Webster-Chicagos/Webcors were the best selling recorders on the market. The Two Jakes movie from 1990 features one in a prominent role. Webster-Chicago.com has quite a few useful links on within, as well as manual bits and schemae. A scuffed red case can be buffed with Esquire Oxblood shoe polish, probably hard to find except for shoe repair places now. Mere mortals *do* strip these all the way down and service them: I would be far more intimidated with one of those fiddly late fifties ediphone disc recorders full of soldered-on pencil tubes and goofy fits. Wire recorders are five prices at the big online auction place, but a patient man will find one for next to nothing eventually, as they are but a curiosity. The schematics and parts lists are available on the web for free, and from others at a nominal price. There is nothing that hipsters won’t try for a giggle, and there is a place on the web where they have some e.p. vinyl specifically transferred from a wire recording made around 2011, which was used to get this very rolled off frequency and warbly sound you heard on the video. Find one for the nostalgia value, fix it and keep it out of the landfill.

  8. I read an article in Electronics Australia where they talked about the BBC using iron “tape”, which looked a lot like steel pallet strap.
    the bit about “splicing” tape by sweat soldering impressed me.
    I just went googling, but couldn’t find anything, I guess I’ll have to wade through my back issues of EA…

    1. Yes, it seems like the BBC used wire and metal ‘tape’ recorders for several years from the 1930’s.
      I’m not sure why these are always described as being a separate technology from other magnetic recording technologies, the only real difference is the medium which is being magnetised, from metal wire, to metal tape, to plastic tape coated in a magnetisable substance.

  9. I thought this is basically the same technique in use today on the flight recorders or “black boxes” if you will. Tapes won’t tolerate the heat, semiconductors won’t tolerate the EMI and magneto-optical drives doesn’t survive the G’s.

    1. The wire will be demagntized by heat too, but it sure was a reliable storage media for the time.

      Flight data was also recorded by a stylus engraving parameters onto a metallic tape, and I thing that was in use much longer then the wire recorders.

    1. no, actually aluminum acetate is one of the few acetates that _isn’t_ significantly water soluble, under normal conditions anyway. Add enough acid and it will dissolve, but just water – nope. That little detail bit basically killed a project I was on in grad school.

    1. The magnetizing polarity is along the length. From north forward to north backwards. The recording bandwidth has some limits the first is distance or gap between the pole pieces on the recording head so this was kept to a minimum.

      The second is the tape speed an that was a trade off with recording time. A faster tape (to head) speed had a higher bandwidth but of course at the expense of recording time for any given length of media (wire or tape).

  10. Don’t say “it didn’t make it” that sounds so negative for a very futuristic device in it’s own days. Instead announce it as “the required step towards modern tape technology”…

  11. Late, I know, but the directions to construct one of these wire recorders is in ‘The Boy Electrician’ available in PDF form with a bit of a search online. It is a turn-of-last-century book with a great deal of interesting info to hackers of any skill, experience or area of interest.

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