John Herbert Orr
History of Magnetic Tape

            The year was 1914

          Place – United States – Outbreak of World War I

         What - People began hearing strange radio transmissions out of Long Island

         Sounds like buzzing bee.

         Rumors that Sayville, L.I., was transmitting coded messages to U-boats patrolling the North American waters.

         Rumors grew stronger when submarine, Deutschland, paid a goodwill visit to the U.S. just months before the U.S. entered the war. This goodwill tour of U.S. ports had several U.S. reporters visiting aboard the submarine and noticed two Telegraphones among the equipment.

 The year was 1915

          Place – United States

         Person - Charles Apgar, a radio experimenter

         What - Recorded these strange noises on a hand cranked Edison cylinder machine. When he played it back and slowed the cylinder down he discovered that these were normal dots and dashes of Morse code.

         He recorded for two weeks and took findings to the inspector of the Bureau of Navigation.

         This was then sent to the Secret Service.

         The findings were locked away and it wasn't until the freedom of information act went into effect that the nature of these recordings were revealed to the public. The machines were being used, as Poulsen had reasoned, as a way to increase the efficiency of transmissions by recording and then playing back at high speed, then reversing the process for decoding.

         The Germans were American Telegraphone's biggest customer.

         The Army Signal Corps tried to purchase machines but only a few defective units were ever delivered.

         The company drifted into obscurity after 1918 as the patents expired and lawsuits and complaints against Rood began to pile up.

 The year was 1928

          Who – Fritz Pfleumer – German Inventor

       •         What – Proposed coating film or paper with magnetizable powder

The year was 1931

         German inventors continued to work with metal formats: Wire and steel bands.

         The Blattnerphone - Used twin reels about the size of spinning wheels.

         Recorded on 6 mm wide metal bands. Edited with metal shears and spliced with soldering iron.

         BBC purchased one in 1931 and used until the 1940's.

         Required two men to load a reel. 

         If the spice broke, run for cover!


The year was 1932

          Place - Germany

         Badische Anilin und Soda Fabrik formed joint venture with AEG to develop a magnetic recording system similar to the Blattnerphone but with less expensive, more reliable and better performance media made possible by a contract with - Fritz Pfleumer.

         BASF made the media, AEG made the hardware.

         Their combined works were the highlight of the 1935 Radio Fair.

         BASF was a division of I.G. Farbenindustrie


The year was 1936


         Place – Milan, Italy

         Luigi Marzocchi developed the idea of mounting two or more heads in a rotating assembly angled to the tape path. He hoped, with this helical scan method, to cram more signals onto a given length of tape.

         American inventor Chester Newell would resurrect this idea in the 1960's.

         About this same time, AEG tried to interest GE in a license for the Magnetophon (as the tape recorder was then known) but GE's "experts” decided the product had no future.

 The year was 1939

          Marvin Camras, a Junior at Illinois Institute of Technology, experimented with wire recording.

         Took his project to Armour Research Foundation. That project landed him a job there. The ARF would later supply more than 10,000 wire recorders to the Navy during the years 1942-1945.

         The 1940’s

          During WWII, AEG and other German companies turned out many audio recorders for use in the field by commanders and journalists and for high fidelity playback for broadcast.

       •         The U.S. military used wire recorders during this period. (Thanks G.E.)

      The year was 1944

         Alexander M. Poniatoff, a Russian immigrant, formed Ampex Electric and Manufacturing Company

         Made precision motors for the Navy

         His initials, AMP, combined with Ex(cellence) formed the name.

               Later incorporated in California and changed it to Ampex Corporation 

         Jack Mullin was charged with following the retreating German army to look for any technology of interest.

         Was asked by British officer about Magnetophon

         Had heard field recorders and wasn’t impressed

               The field recorders used D.C. bias rather than A.C., hence the poor sound quality

         Drove to Bad Nauheim where Radio Frankfurt was located

         Radio Frankfurt was being run by the Armed Forces Radio Network

         Here he heard the quality of the studio machines

         He found two Magnetophons required by the Signal Corps and two more for himself

         Managed to send these and 50 rolls of tape back to U.S. in 35 mailbags

 The year was 1945

          John Herbert Orr

         Was also following the retreating German army.

         Radio Luxembourg was the largest of the stations and had not been destroyed

         Here Orr also heard the quality of the Magnetophon

The year was 1945

          The primary responsibility for tape fell to Orr to get the BASF plant back in operation

         He met Dr. Karl (Fritz?)Pflaumer – Remember him?

         Pflaumer, writing on a paper bag, gave Orr a formula for, not the latest oxide formulation, but the simplest to manufacture.

         Two weeks later Orr was manufacturing tape on material originally meant for women’s purses.

         Toward the end of the war, Orr was seriously injured in automobile accident.

         While recuperating in the base hospital, he was attended to by an IRISH nurse.

         Orr was visited by his now, good friend, Dr. Pflaumer.

         As a parting gift, Pflaumer slipped a piece of paper in Orr’s hand.

         This was the formula for the GOOD Stuff!

         After the war, Orr returned home to Opelika AL

 In August 1935, the Magnetophon K1 was unveiled at the Berlin Radio Fair. The first serious recording using this portable, self-contained recorder was in November 1936, with Sir Thomas Beecham conducting the London Philharmonic at BASF’s concert hall near its manufacturing plant in Ludwigshaven. Other improvements followed, such as BASF’s ferric-oxide tape in 1939 and Walter Weber’s rediscovery and application of high-frequency AC biasing, which had been known since the 1920s, giving the 1941 Magnetophons a bandwidth of 10 kHz.