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Accoson Sphygmomanometer

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Aiwa LX-110 Linear Turntable

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Widget Of The Week

Phonotrix Model 1 Miniature tape recorder, 1959

Miniature tape recorders like this little Phonotrix Model 1 are frequently associated with spies and secret agents. They often turn up as props in sixties and seventies movies and TV shows but the reality is most of them were far too basic to be of any real use for serious espionage and a lot of them were simply toys. Apart from anything else small machines like this one, using 3-inch reels and a simple rim-drive mechanism, do not have the capacity to record for more than a few minutes, and the quality is almost always dreadful. 


The Phonotrix 1 was a notable exception, though. It’s the real deal, spy-wise, and apparently used by the CIA during the Cold War – more about that in just a moment. This one wasn’t a toy, even though it was made by a toy maker, the Trix United Toy Factory of Nuremberg, in West Germany. Mechanically it is a lot more sophisticated than the majority of so-called ‘spycorders’ coming out of Japan throughout the 1960s. It has a proper grown-up capstan-drive tape mechanism, which helps to maintain a constant head to tape speed. It was quite expensive and would have been sold for serious applications like dictation. However, on this model playback speed is constantly variable, from 3 to 15 cm/sec. This would have been quite useful for transcribing speech and may well have been the key feature that bought it to the attention of the US spy agency’s version of Q-Branch.


According to the excellent Dutch-based Wireless For The Warrior website (a treasure trove of information for anyone interested in the history and nuts and bolts of military communications) a modified Phonotrix 1 was taken from a CIA agent caught operating in East Germany. The machine had been adapted to send secret messages in Morse Code; it’s known in the spook business as a high-speed keyer. The idea was the machine recorded a Morse message at the slowest speed; the tape was then rewound and played back at the highest speed. An add-on circuit detects the clicks from the Morse key on the recording and converts them into pulses, which are used operate the transmitter’s keying circuit. This dramatically reduces the time it takes to send a message, and as a consequence the chances of the transmission being intercepted and the sender located.


It’s a fairly straightforward role and one that this little machine was well suited to. Back then it would have been a fairly commonplace piece of office equipment so it wouldn’t have aroused much suspicion if one was found in your possession. Sadly this one is the plain vanilla civilian version but it’s still interesting and a good example of post war German engineering. The case body and pretty well all vital moving parts are made of metal, so it’s a really tough little customer. The motor is a very high quality design with electro-mechanical speed stabilisation, and its own unusual backstory, as we will see.


To save space and weight and make it easy to use it has just the bare minimum of controls, and functions. These include a small sliding lever on the front for forward and rewind tape transport, and there’s a sliding switch on the side for selecting record or playback mode. There are two small knobs; the one on the side, next to the record switch is for adjusting the audio output level and the other one, next to the tape take-up reel, is the variable speed control. Power is supplied by a set of four 1.5volt cells, which powers both the motor and the simple three transistor amplifier circuit. One of the reasons this machine is so small is because it doesn’t have an internal speaker; an external speaker is supplied and along with the microphone, it plugs into a pair of sockets on the side. The mike and speaker plugs look a bit like standard 3.5mm jacks but they’re a weird proprietary design, with a spiked central conductor, and a nasty habit of falling out of their sockets. The whole kit was supplied in a custom-made leatherette covered case. When new it would have looked very smart though the one that came with is machine has clearly led a tough life. On the plus side it did its job well, protecting the contents, which have only very light signs of use.


This machine came from a small local antique fair in the early noughties and it cost me just £5.00, no haggling needed. In spite of the tatty case it looked like a bargain; the recorder, mike and speaker were all a bit grubby but there were no signs of corrosion, inside or out, making it a prime candidate for a restoration job. As it turned out it needed very little attention, just a good clean up and a few drops of oil on the moving parts. It came with four reels, three of them full, though any recordings had long since been erased or degraded to just a background mush and the occasional rumble. It is still able to make new recordings and whilst it’s not into hi-fi territory is it fine for speech, even at the slowest speed; it was also clearly good enough for the CIA’s purposes.


What Happened To It?

Trix was a very long established toy maker based in Nuremberg and its speciality, from the early 1930s until the late 90s, was high quality model railways. In 1997 Trix got into financial difficulties and was taken over by competitors Marklin. Back in the 1950s, in an attempt to branch out into new markets Trix launched a number of new products. These included tape recorders, model cars and even electric razors. It wasn’t as much of a departure from its core business as it might seem and many of the new items used the same high performance electric motors as their model locomotives. The Phonotrix 1 was followed by the larger Phonotrix 2, which had the speaker built into the case. Sales of both models were disappointing – possibly due to the relatively high prices, and low demand from the CIA  – and production of tape recorders appears to have ended by the mid 1960s.


A few Phonotrix machines have survived, thanks to the very high standard of construction, and every so one turns up on ebay. In spite of their comparative rarity and unusual history prices vary a lot, from just a few pounds to more than £100. This isn’t always dependent on condition or whether or not they need attention. Bargains do exist and if you ever come across one of those modified CIA models grab it quick, collectors of Cold War memorabilia will probably pay you a small fortune for it.


First seen                  1959

Original Price           140 DM (German Deutsch Marks)

Value Today             £50 (1116)

Features                    2 track, capstan drive, variable speed (3 – 15cm/sec), Play, Record & Rewind transport modes, 75mm reel size, permanent magnet erase head, 3 transistor amplifier (OC71, OC72, GET 21), external speaker, proprietary mic, speaker & external power sockets

Power req.                    4 x 1.5v D cells

Dimensions:                  170 x 125 x 88mm

Weight:                         1.4kg

Made (assembled) in:    West Germany

Hen's Teeth (10 rarest):  8




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