The Wire Recorder
A Webster Chicago wire recorder for the home, 1949
By RANDY McNUTT
In the mid-1940s, before tape dominated, wire recorders arrived and became popular for ten years for home recording and to a much lesser extent for professional recording in studios and radio stations. Both wire and tape used the magnetic method of storing sound. But tape won the magnetic war. The most well-known seller of wire recorders was Webster-Chicago. It advertised heavily, particularly in local newspapers. Wire recorders for the public got the jump on tape recorders, starting in earnest as World War II was ending in 1945. When the Ampex 200 tape recorder arrived on the market in 1948, however, the fate of the wire slowly became known. The tape machine received most of the attention in the newspapers. It seemed like the invention of the talking machine in the late 1800s.
Soon, home recorders arrived, and the battle between wire and tape began in earnest. People were genuinely excited. As a result, sales of wire recorders declined steadily. By the mid-1950s, wire machines were becoming passe. But the end had not yet come. The most well-known seller of wire recorders was Webster-Chicago. It advertised heavily, particularly in local newspapers. It reminds me of the duel between BETA and VHS, the two types of video recording tape in the 1980s. Once it was clear that VHS had won that war, BETA’s days were clearly numbered. So it was with wire.
My memories of the wire recorder date from my childhood. My uncle bought one to record me. He was fascinated with his new machine, and he learned to record with it quite effectively. Over the next five years, he recorded me speaking my first words, singing, telling jokes, and saying silly and serious things. As I grew, he continued to record my words, and later my younger sister’s. We were comfortable at the microphone. About 1951 my aunt and mother started obtaining tickets to Ruth Lyons’ 50-50 Club shown on WLWT in Cincinnati. It was the most popular television program in our area. Ruth was the ultimate raconteur and a talented songwriter who composed local and regional hits, many with a Christmas theme. In 1961 she wrote “Wasn’t the Summer Short?,” a haunting ballad recorded by Johnny Mathis. Once, Ruth spotted me in the audience and asked me to join her on her couch, where she chatted about all sorts of subjects. She loved children. I was only about three years old, but even then I was a talker. You could say I was a live wire. Already I was cracking jokes and observing life and automobiles. I told Ruth that I wanted to grow up to own a junkyard. (FYI: I did not fulfill my fantasy.)
Ruth and her sidekick, Willie Thall, a local country musician who had appeared on the station’s Midwestern Hayride, loved exploring my tiny mind. Back at home on my TV days, my uncle always got away from his job as a grocer and meat-store owner to record me with his wire machine as I held court on television. He kept those spools of wire for the next half-century, until they began to snap when played. They were as durable as tape. To rescue some of the wires he copied them to audio cassettes. When he died in 2004, I became the keeper of his Webster-Chicago and the wires of our lives.
Excerpted from Randy McNutt's new book Vintage Tape Recorders: A Pictorial History of Professional Tape Machines, Long-Forgotten Studios, and Assorted Gear (HHP Books, 2019). The large-format book, which sells for $25, features 235 pages of historic photos, advertising and publicity materials, spec sheets, and more materials representing recording machines from the 1940s into the 1970s. The book is available through Amazon.com and other book outlets.