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One of the joys of my childhood was my family's Webster-Chicago wire recorder. It's a model 180-1 and my father got it as a gift around 1950. It would have cost in the neighborhood of $150.00. Throughout the 50s, every time we had family or friends over, out would come the recorder and we'd get them to sing, recite, or just talk (yes, people actually talked to each other back then). The unit used spools of wire that were 15, 30, or 60 minutes long. The wire itself was around twice the thickness of a human hair. The fidelity range was between 70 and 5000 cycles per second (they didn't have Hz in those days, so we forced to use a measurement that actually meant something). One of the tensioning springs wasn't pulling correctly, but in 2010 I found someone who was able to fix that. It now works as well as ever, tubes and all.

wire01 wire02 Here's what it looks like on the outside. Its dimensions are 7 inches high, by 17.5 inches long, by 11 inches deep. This is hardly in the Walkman class: most of the exercise I got as a kid was from schlepping this monster around. It's solid and weighs 35 pounds. The manufacturer obviously subscribed to the theory that if you put a handle on the Empire State Building it would instantly become portable.

wire02 wire04 Here it is opened. We'll go over all the features below. Note that at the top of the detachable case lid (above the three reels of wire that can be stored with the unit) there's a storage compartment in which the microphone and line cord are kept.

wire05 There's something really nice about that microphone; it hearkens back to a simplier time. Note that the wire recorder made its attachments using Jones plugs (rather than RCA or phono plugs). The funny thing is that I can't remember how I recorded from the radio. I suppose that I made a patch cord with a Jones plug on one end and alligator clips on the other. I can remember many wonderful nights sitting in the dark with a flashlight because the fluorescent lights in the kitchen would play havoc with the radio's reception.

wire06 Here's the "command center." At the bottom right is the combination on-off switch and tone control. To its immediate right is a jack to connect to an external speaker. Right above that is the output selector (1 = use the internal speaker; 2 = use an external speaker; 3 = use output with an amplifier, such as a PA system). Slightly above that is a neon bulb that indicates the recording level (it had to flicker; if it was steady, you were probably overloading). On the bottom left is the jack for the microphone's Jones plug. Next to that is the volume control, and above it is the record/listen selector.

wire07 Here's the business end of the recorder. At the front middle is the Run/Rewind/Stop selector. To its right is the timer. At the back of the unit, on the left, is the mandrel that holds the wire spool. On the right is the take-up reel and in the middle is the play/record head.

wire08 wire09 Here are closeups of the elapsed time indicator and the Run/Rewind switch. If the timer didn't make it back to zero, you could always just grab it and twist it until it was in the correct position. To use the Run/Rewind switch, you had to push one of the brown buttons down and then slide the operating lever over it.

wire10 This is what the record head looks like from the back. The "leader" on the wire spool was a piece of string That's what you're seeing being threaded through the record head right now. The head moved up and down so that the wire would be evenly wound onto the take-up reel. The two vertical posts automatically shut the motor down if they were hit by the wire (as they would be at the end of the reel).

wire11 Want to know why, when you fix a broken tape, it's called "splicing"? Behold! This isn't terribly clear, but right by that white dot in the black "W" area is a genuine wire splice. You literally tied the ends together into a knot and cut off the excess (which I haven't done yet here). Remember to make a square knot, not a granny!

wire12 Finally, here's the wire going through the record head. It's very thin, I estimate it's two to three times the width of a human hair. Unfortunately, I don't have anything fine enough to measure it with. (Actually, I recently found out it's .004 inches in diameter.) The record head somehow magnetized the wire in meaningful ways. The fidelity wasn't great (in spite of the recording speed being 24 inches per second), but it was a long time before I knew anyone who had a tape recorder. (I didn't get my Wollensack T-1515-4 until 1960.) I first used the Webster-Chicago to "tape" Peter Tripp's hits of 1958 (on WMGM) and I recorded lots of songs from Alan Freed's WABC show in 1959.

I'm really glad I decided to do this piece. It's been a long time since I've visited with my old wire recorder.

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