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Yupiteru MVT-8000 Scanner

Duvidal FT-66 Mini Tape Recorder, 1962

You might think that collecting cheap, miniature, reel-to-reel tape recorders from the 1960s would be a reasonably straightforward business. After all how many of them can there be? The vast majority of them were made in Japan, probably by only a dozen or so volume manufacturers and roughly the same number again of smaller companies. The point is, sixties Japan had a vibrant consumer electronics industry with many of those companies into serious, hard-core badge engineering. Itís not unknown for the same tape recorder to be sold under a score of different brand names. Then thereís the churn factor, with small companies being swallowed up by larger ones, new arrivals all the time and lots of failures. In short anyone hoping to amass a reasonably comprehensive collection, or even create some sort of archive can expect it to be a never-ending job. At a rough guess there are more than a thousand machines out there, and it could be a lot more. On the plus side there is a lot of satisfaction to be had discovering a previously undocumented model, like this Duvidal FT-66. At the time of writing thereís no record of it anywhere (except hereÖ), and that includes the closest thing to a collectorís Bible, Phil Van Praagís estimable ĎEvolution of the Audio Recorderí.

 

The FT-66 doesnít deviate too far from the near standard spec for these little machines. To begin with it has a rim-drive tape transport mechanism. It has a single motor that acts upon the rubber-rimmed edge of the tape reel platters. It sounds like a good idea, and it works well enough for this kind of application low cost, low quality audio recording and playback. The big drawback is variable tape speed, as one reel empties and the other fills up. It doesnít matter when replaying recordings made on the same machine but they can sound a bit weird when played on a tape recorder with a constant-speed, capstan drive mechanism, and vice-versa.

 

Most rim drive machines, and this one is no exception, also suffer from a lack of a fast-forward transport function. It does simplify the controls though, and apart from the volume thumbwheel thereís only one Ė the four position rotary switch for Play, Stop, Record and Rewind. Thereís not much in the way of connections either, not even an earphone socket, just a solitary 3.5mm jack for the crystal microphone. In fact the only slightly unconventional feature is the batteries, which consists of two 1.5-volt C cells that live in a compartment on the underside. Normally machines of this ilk use two AA or C cells plus a 9-volt PP3 type battery. The C cells are used exclusively by the motor and the 9-volt battery powers the amplifier. This simplifies the design and helps prolong battery life and itís unusual not to have the 9-volt battery because back in the 60s most electronic devices used germanium transistors and these work more efficiently at higher voltages.

 

The only other features that warrant a mention are the retractable carry handle, the detachable transparent lid, and it came with its original microphone retail box and poly packing, in fact the only notable omission was the instructions. Almost everything has survived in remarkably good condition; typically on machines of this vintage bits are broken or missing, which by rights should make this little machine a desirable collector's item, in theory at least...

 

This one has been in my collection for more than fifteen years and although I cannot recall exactly when it was. The chances are it came from ebay, which in the early noughties was awash with little machines like this. I definitely wouldnít have paid more than £5 to £10 for it and it probably came from the US, when shipping charges were still comparatively low.

 

It appears to be in almost as new condition, it works too, as least as well as most of its contemporaries, which is to say itís fine for recording speech, but not much else. When I opened it up to take the photos I was surprised to see that I hadnít done anything to it; paint seals on the internal screws were untouched, even on the amplifier board, which I almost always future-proof by replacing the electrolytic capacitors. In short itís as close to original as it is possible to get.   

 

What Happened To It?

Duvidal, or whoever was behind the name seems to have disappeared without trace, probably in the mid to late 1960s The only other Duvidal products I am aware of are a couple of microphones and a simple mike mixer, all appearing to date from around the same period. On the evidence so far the FT-66 seems to be extremely rare, if not unique, which suggests that it was not around for very long, or a big seller, at least not in the UK. Even if it had sold well it wouldnít have lasted much beyond the end of the sixties as by then the Compact Cassette had all but wiped out open-reel tape recorders, at the budget end of the market at any rate. As is so often the case, though, scarcity in doesnít necessarily translate into value, especially on products from obscure and probably short-lived manufacturers. Even though it is almost one hundred percent complete and in near mint condition it is probably only worth £30 to £40, possibly a little more to a serious collector, or someone called DuvidalÖ


GIZMO GUIDE

First seen:                   1962

Original Price:             £5.00?

Value Today:               £30.00 (0817)

Features:                     2-track mono recording, single motor rim-drive tape transport, max reel size 75mm (3-inches), permanent magnet erase head, 4-transistor amplifier, external crystal microphone (3.5mm jack), 55mm (2.4 inch) speaker, carry handle

Power req.                        2 x 1.5 volt ĎCí cells

Dimensions:                      175 x 180 x 70mm

Weight:                             850g

Made (assembled) in:       Japan

Hen's Teeth (10 rarest):     9


Grundig TK 141 Tape Recorder, 1970

Keeping up with the latest trends in home entertainment can be a tricky business. However, given the current fad for retro technology, and following on from the successful vinyl revival and talk of a comeback for compact cassette, itís surely only a matter of time before reel-to-reel tape recorders become the next big thing. The smart move now, before it all kicks off, is to get ahead of the game and snap up some original vintage machines. As soon as it takes off the very limited supply will quickly dry up, prices will shoot up and within a few months high-priced repro gear will be coming out of the woodwork, sporting Bluetooth and USB connectivity, of course. This will be followed by shed loads of cheap and nasty tat, and then it will be all over, to make way for the next passing craze.

 

So, if you want to get foothold in the forthcoming reel-to-reel revolution Ė pun intended -- and youíre on a tight budget then itís worth keeping a lookout for one of the many fine machines made by Grundig during the 60s and 70s (earlier, mostly valve-based models can be troublesome). Grundig were prolific; their machines had a reputation for being well made and reliable, and they sold in large numbers, in spite of being slightly dearer than rival brands. This TK 141 is a good example. Itís a compact 4-track design. It sounds good, looks the part and itís built to last so thereís a better than average chance of finding one that works, or can be easily fixed. Sadly, in spite of the 4-track recording system (2 tracks per side) sound output is monophonic; a conversion is possible though itís hardly necessary as there are stereo models of similar vintage, appearance and price available (look for TK 147 and above). 

 

What sets the TK 141 and the others in the range apart from the crowd is robust metal chassis, high performance motor and dependable electronic circuitry. Just about the only things that wear out are the drive belts but modern replacements are readily available, and quite easy to fit, once you know the trick Ė more on that in a moment.

 

All transport functions are controlled by the large lever (or knob, on some models) on the right side of top panel, so it is very easy to use and mechanical problems are few. It has a simple capstan drive mechanism, in this case a single speed setup, running at the industry standard mid-fi 9.56 cm/sec (3 ĺ ips). It takes reels up to 15cm (6-inches) in diameter, giving around an hour per side (or 2 hours if you rewind and listen to the other track). Thereís a set of sliders for adjusting volume, tone and recording level, shown on an illuminated meter. It also has a tape counter, a solid 4 watts output through a 15 cm elliptical speaker and a smart seventies style Ďexecutiveí carry case with a compartment for the mains lead. In fact the only operational downside, apart from mono-only operation, is the assortment of input and output sockets. Theyíre all multi-pin DIN type connectors, and a real pain in the arse when it comes to hooking up to modern audio equipment.   

 

An otherwise disappointing car boot sale on the South Coast was the where this one was found. It was a last minute purchase. The weather was foul, stallholders were packing up early and I spotted it on the way out, on the last pitch before the car park, just as the stallholder was about to load it into his van. He was clearly happy to see the back of it and keen to get home to his Sunday lunch as he instantly accepted my cheeky opening offer of £2.00. Apart from a layer of mud and general grime on the outside of the case it was in excellent condition, but a few minor faults needed fixing.

 

The first was the power button, which had become jammed in the on position. A few squirts of switch cleaner got things moving again, and a few more were applied to the almost always-scratchy volume and tone sliders. The machine powered up and there was a promising low-level hum from the speaker and the capstan roller was spinning but there were no Play or Fast Forward functions. Manually turning the take up reel bought forth loud musical type sounds from the speaker, which meant the likely culprit was a broken or lose drive belt, so off came the bottom cover. This was the start of my lesson in how not to replace belts on Grundig tape recorders. I may have been given false hope by an early victory as I spotted the belt for the tape counter has also broken. A new one took about 10 seconds to fit.

 

The main drive belt turned out to be a real head-scratcher, though. After unscrewing everything in sight I was no closer to getting the new belt in place. In fact in the first hour all I managed to do was extricate the old belt, which at least allowed me to work out the size of the new belt. Luckily I had one to hand that would fit, it came from a Chinese Ďbumper bundleí pack of 50 miscellaneous drive belts bought on ebay for just £2.99, less than a third the price of a single belt from a spare parts dealer.

 

Finally I did what I should have done from the outset and googled Ďreplace grundig TK 141 beltí. It took just a few seconds to learn that itís very a common problem, and easily fixed. The previously mentioned trick is whip off the top panel (5 screws and the carry handle) from where you can loop the belt around the flywheel. Flip it over and remove the 2 screws retaining the bearing plate for the capstan drive pulley. Once thatís out of the way snag the belt with an unfurled paperclip and loop it over the pulley, replace the bearing plate and itís done. From start to finish it only takes around 5 minutes.

 

Before refitting the top and bottom covers I took the opportunity to apply some light grease to the moving parts, squirted some more switch cleaner where it would do some good, brushed out the dust and debris and cleaned the heads and pinch roller. Itís now back to its old self and whilst performance is some way below todayís mainstream hi-fi, for a piece of equipment thatís rapidly approaching its fiftieth birthday, it doesnít sound half bad with plenty of depth, and a surprisingly crisp bass. Even the lack of stereo isnít as much of a problem as you might think, especially when itís belting out 50s and 60ís rock tracks, many of which would have been recorded in mono.

 

What Happened To It?

Grundig are still with us but realistically in name only. The once highly respected brand is now a shadow of its former self, owned by a Turkish manufacturer of home appliances. German radio engineer Max Grundig founded it shortly after the end of World War II and by the end of the 1940s the rapidly growing company was building and selling radios. Production of tape recorders began in the early 50s and expansion into other areas was rapid. In the seventies Dutch rival Philips started to take an interest in Grundig and by the mid eighties they were into almost everything electronic, from VCRs and TVs to high-end hi-fi and in-car entertainment. Philips and Grundig parted company in the early nineties and by the early noughties it had drifted into insolvency, resulting in its current change of ownership.  

 

The build quality of reel-to-reel tape recorders from Grundigís golden years was so good that many have survived in good condition. I suspect that a lot of them are gathering dust in cupboards, too good to throw away but almost certainly non-functional, in many cases for the want of a replacement drive belt. In most cases itís a quick, simple and cheap fix. This means prices for non-runners on ebay and at car boot sales can be surprisingly low, and occasionally an absolute bargain, especially for those with a few simple tools and some basic DIY skills.


GIZMO GUIDE

First seen:          1970

Original Price:   £30

Value Today:     £20 (0517)

Features:           4-track mono recording, capstan drive, single speed (9.53 cms/3 3/4 ips), max reel size 15cm/6-inches, 4 watts audio output, illuminated recording level meter, tape counter

Power req.                    220-Volts AC Mains

Dimensions:                  295 x 162 x 295mm

Weight:                         7.8kg

Made (assembled) in:   United Kingdom

Hen's Teeth (10 rarest)  6


Protona Minifon Attachť Tape Recorder, 1959

All credit to Philips for

the phenomenal success of the audio Compact Cassette format, launched in 1963, but if you look through Dustygizmos you will see that it wasnít the first or even necessarily the best tape cassette system of its day. In fact there is little doubt that Philips would have been aware of this one developed by German company Protona, (later to become Telefunken), whilst it was working on Compact Cassette. It belongs to the Minifon Attachť, first seen in 1959, though the cassette had been designed a few years previously. There are numerous similarities between the two formats and the recorders, including the tandem reel layout, two-side recording, capstan drive mechanism; the only significant differences are that the Minifon cassette is a little larger and uses quarter-inch wide tape (Compact cassette tape is 1/8th inch wide), but ironically, while the cassette is bigger the Minifon Attachť is only around two-thirds the size of first generation Cassette recorders, and a good deal more sophisticated.

 

The feature list is as good a place as any to begin and the most obvious one is the row of piano key controls. These were very unusual on late 50s tape recorders, and almost unheard of on one as small as this. And it is very small; it fits easily into a coat pocket and itís highly portable, thanks to it being battery powered. That wasnít uncommon back then but the ĎMini-Accuí battery it uses was. Itís a rechargeable type using what was in the late 50s the relatively new Nickel- Cadmium technology known generically as DEAC (Ďdeekí) cells, named after the pioneering manufacturer Deutsche Edison Akkumuatoren Company.

 

Another reason it is so small is due to it using transistors, instead of valves in the amplifier circuit. Once again this was cutting edge stuff and it was one of only a small handful of transistorised tape recorders in the late fifties. One more reason for the diminutive size is the lack of a built-in speaker, instead it was supplied with stethoscope type earphones and an external speaker was available as an optional extra. It also came with a microphone, fitted with a remote Play/Record switch and it was supplied with a very well made leather case.

 

The machine is exceptionally well made. The case and chassis are both made of metal, and the moving parts are excellent examples of German precision engineering. Then thereís the speed-stabilised motor, which looks like it was made in a watch factory. The circuit boards have are a repair personís dream and are meant to be easily get-attable, though this one, and the two others that passed have through my hands all worked faultlessly. 

 

Thereís no need to go through the controls, they are clearly labelled and very easy to use; the only thing thatís missing is a fast-wind function, though this would have been no great hardship in its intended application. So, the question is, at a time when tape recorders were still a long way from being a commonplace consumer product, who was it aimed at? The small size and functions are clearly suggests it was a piece of office equipment. It would have been used for dictation and taking notes, however, when you take a closer look at the optional extras there are a few surprises. Why, for example, would anyone need a microphone disguised as a wristwatch? Then thereís the telephone recording adaptor and an easily concealable miniature microphone. Of course it is quite possible that it was used for serious espionage. This was the start of the Cold War after all, and if the movies and books are to be believed Germany was a hotbed of spooks. However, covert recording would also have been regarded as a legitimate business tool and no doubt tiny machines like the Attachť were routinely used for eavesdropping on meetings and gathering industrial secrets.

 

No prizes for guessing where this one and the others that I have owned came from. It was ebay, but bought at least 10 years ago, when machines like this were still plentiful, and cheap. I do not recall how much it cost but I wouldnít have paid more than £10 or so for it, and that included the leather case and accessories. The original battery was long gone, in any case it would have been useless; early rechargeables had a very short life. Itís was easily overcome, though, and it (they) all worked when connected to a mains power supply, and it would be a fairly simple matter to construct a holder for modern batteries. As I indicated they were all in good working order, though to make sure they stayed that way moving parts were lubricated and any iffy looking rubber belts replaced. Although the tape moves at a relatively sedate speed of 4.76cm/sec sound quality is pretty decent, itís by no means hi-fi quality but its fine for speech and musical recordings are far from terrible. Given the advances that gradually improved the performance of compact cassette machines I have no doubt that they could have been applied to the Minifon, had it been a commercial success. 

 

What Happened To It?

Clever marketing by Philips ensured that Compact Cassette saw off all of its rivals, not that the Attachť ever had any pretensions as an entertainment device. It resulted in the eventual demise of reel-to-reel tape recorders, though they lingered on for another couple of decades by occupying a niche at the top end of the market. Protona were taken over by Telefunken in 1962 but the Minifon continued in production, going through several revisions and badges (at one point it was branded ITT) until 1967 when the Attachť and Protona names disappeared from view.

 

Sales of the Attachť must have been quite good and up until a few years ago there were usually one or two on ebay at any given time. The supply eventually dried up, though and the few machines that appear on the market are snapped up quickly, sometimes for quite astonishing prices. With so few examples to go it is hard to say exactly how much they are worth but anywhere between £50 and £100 would be a good starting point for one in working condition, and a case and accessories can only add to its value.   


GIZMO GUIDE

First seen:          1959

Original Price:   950DM (£80.00)

Value Today:     £100.00 (0317)

Features:           Single speed capstan drive, proprietary cassette using 0.25 in (0.63cm) wide tape, tape speed 1.8ips (4.76 cm/sec), running time 30 mins 15 min per side), 3-digit tape counter, battery/recording level indicator, 6 transistor amplifier, piano-key controls (Stop, Rewind, Play/Listen, Record)

Power req.                         7.5v mini-accu DEAC rechargeable battery

Dimensions:                        178 x 100 x 43mm

Weight:                               900g

Made (assembled) in:          West Germany

Hen's Teeth (10 rarest)         6


Sanyo MC-1 & MC-1A Mini Tape Recorders, 1963

This might look like four almost identical miniature tape recorders, and you wouldnít be far wrong but take a closer and you'll see that there are some subtle differences. In fact there are two distinct models and they are the Sanyo MC-1 and MC-1A, the focus of this episode of dustygizmos.. The differences between them are fairly minor, though, and they include the position of the volume and speed control knobs, a few mechanical and cosmetic touches, like the way the reel platters are retained on the spindles, a cover over the record/replay and erase heads on the MC-1A, badges, case markings and so on. The other two machines are the Craig TR-401 and 404, which are essentially badge-engineered versions of the MC-1 and MC-1A and sold in the US. The name change was probably a marketing strategy. In the early sixties American public opinion was still a bit iffy about overtly Japanese-made products; Craig on the other hand was regarded as a familiar and well-established US brand. But their origin is in no doubt and aside from the name badges and the lids (the Sanyo ones are removable, the Craig lids are hinged); theyíre all peas from the same pod.

 

Now weíve got that out of the way itís time to take a closer look at this extraordinary little tape recorder and the first and most noticeable feature is the size. Itís tiny, a little shorter and a few millimetres fatter than a VHS cassette, if you can remember what they look like. The tape reels are just 65mm (2.5 inches) in diameter and last for around 10 Ė 15 minutes, depending on the recording speed. Thatís a big limitation when it comes to recording music, and the quality is quite poor, but its good enough for speech and thatís exactly what theyíre for. These machines were mainly intended business use, for taking notes and dictation, and audio letters, and being so small theyíre easy to pop into a pocket or kitbag. Thatís a clue to what was probably the biggest market. They were ideal for the hundreds of thousands of US service personnel serving in Vietnam and stationed around the world, to keep in touch with folks back home. In one of the photographs, further down the page, you can see an example of a tape that made it halfway around the world, from the Asian conflict zones to Philadelphia, still in its original cardboard sleeve with just a scribbled address and three stamps.

 

Although these machines were very well made, with tough all-metal cases the mechanics, and in particular, the transport mechanism is about as rudimentary as it gets. A single motor mounted on a pivot drives the reels. Switching between Play/Record and Rewind presses the rotating spindle against either the right or left rubber-rimmed tape platter. Yes, itís another example of the infamous rim-drive mechanism, elegantly simple but suffering from two fundamental flaws. Firstly, as one reel empties and the other fills up the speed at which the tape is drawn past the tape head varies continuously. Thatís not a problem when a recording is played back on the machine that it was made on, or one with identical mechanical properties. However, on tape recorders with a constant-speed capstan drive tape mechanism recordings can sound a bit weird and for that reason when these machines were to be used for sending and receiving audio letters they were often sold in pairs. The other problem is the lack of a fast forward mode, though these models do have variable speed control. Itís not a substitute bit it can help skim through recordings made at slower speeds.

 

Controls are few and far between in fact there are only five of them so theyíre really easy to use. There are two knobs for adjusting replay volume and replay speed and three slide switches for setting Play/Record mode, Rewind/Forward tape direction and On/Stop. By the way, hereís a tip if you manage to get your hands on one of these little machines. When not in use always set the Rewind/Forward switch midway so both reels rotate freely. If you donít the motor spindle will eventually leave a permanent dent in the rubber of whichever reel it is pressing against, resulting in a nasty Ďbumpí in playback and a horrible noiseÖ 

 

These machines run on four 1.5-volt AA cells, powering both the motor and the four-transistor amplifier. There is a small 55mm speaker is built into the underside of the case and it comes with an external microphone, fitted with a remote pause switch. This, and the supplied earphone fit into a little pouch attached to the end of the rather smart black leatherette carry case, which is also included with the outfit.     

 

The first Craig and Sanyo machines I bought was more than 25 years ago,  when they were still quite cheap and plentiful. Sometimes I would get lucky and buy a pair or they would come with a collection of tapes. Over the years I have probably owned more than 20 of them, mostly bought from ebay in the US, but one by one most of them have been sold or swapped, leaving just the four you see here. I canít say for certain how much I paid for any of them, but it wouldnít have been more than £5 to £10. The few I have seen recently on ebay sold for more than £50, so my collection is unlikely to get bigger anytime soon. The condition of the ones I bought was generally very good; theyíre really robust and most of them had been well looked after. The majority worked straight off and only needed cleaning and oiling. A few had little or no audio but changing the electrolytic caps on the amplifier board usually got them going again.

 

What Happened To It?

In a word (or rather twoÖ) Compact Cassette. It killed off these and almost all other reel-to-reel tape recorders. It was no contest. Cassette tapes were smaller, lasted longer, sounded better and eventually the tapes and the machines were much cheaper than their reel-based counterparts. The Philips designed audio cassette first appeared in 1963 and by the early 70s it had almost wiped out reel-to-reel tape recorders, but they never completely died out. High-end machines continued in production for another couple of decades and a few classic models have become highly prized by audio enthusiasts. Small and cute machines like these Sanyo and Craig models have become collectorís items, and consequently theyíre much harder to find nowadays. Their occasional appearance on ebay almost always receives a lot of attention, and sometimes some really astonishing prices, but every so often one still slip under the collectorís radar, so donít give up if you fancy adding one to your collection. 


GIZMO GUIDE(Manuals, Craig TR-401/4)

First seen:           1963

Original Price:     $30

Value Today:       £60 (0117)

Features:             2-track rim-drive mechanism, 65mm (2.5 in) tape reels, variable speed, magnetic erase head, remote pause, Play/Record, Rewind transport mode, built-in 55mm speaker, carry case

Power req.                    4 x 1.5v AA cells

Dimensions:                  135 x 90 x 53mm

Weight:                         600g

Made (assembled) in:   Japan

Hen's Teeth (10 rarest)  8


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. Itís the real deal, spy-wise, and apparently used by the CIA during the Cold War Ė more about that in just a moment. This one wasnít 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 Ďspycordersí 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 agencyís 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; itís 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 transmitterís 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.

 

Itís 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 wouldnít have aroused much suspicion if one was found in your possession. Sadly this one is the plain vanilla civilian version but itís 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 itís 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 thereís 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 doesnít 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 theyíre 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 itís not into hi-fi territory is it fine for speech, even at the slowest speed; it was also clearly good enough for the CIAís 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 wasnít 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 Ė possibly due to the relatively high prices, and low demand from the CIA  Ė 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 isnít 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.


GIZMO GUIDE

First seen                  1959

Original Price           140 DM (German Deutsch Marks)

Value Today             £50 (1116)

Features                    2 track, capstan drive, variable speed (3 Ė 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


Sanyo MR-115 Mains Portable Tape Recorder, 1969

Although reel-to-reel tape recorders never completely disappeared, by the time the Sanyo MR-115 came on to the market, sometime around 1969, open reel tape recorders were rapidly becoming an endangered species. This near mass extinction was almost entirely due to the almost instant runaway success of the Compact Cassette, launched by Philips in 1962.

 

It was no contest. For sheer convenience and effortless, fuss-free recording and playback of both home made and pre-recorded sounds, cassettes wiped the floor with open reel machines. The only thing left to the old format was sound quality, and even that would be threatened in the largely undemanding home hi-fi market, following the development of efficient noise reduction systems and improved tape formulations. The question then is why, in the late 60s, with cheap and in some cases quite decent cassette recorders coming out of the woodwork, would anyone want to spend several weeks wages on this outwardly rather ordinary machine? 

 

Sanyo were not alone in continuing to keep one or two moderately well equipped reel-to-reel tape recorders in their product ranges in the late sixties and early seventies. Clearly there would always be a small cohort of users with collections of tapes that they would want to be able to listen to, plus there's the usual assortment of die-hards and enthusiasts who simply refuse to accept the new format. Either way the MR-115 and its ilk was a last gasp for most manfacturers and within a couple of years they had virtually disappeared from sight.

 

Thatís a pity because at any other time the MR-115 might have done quite well. The headline features include mains and portable battery operation, a twin-speed deck (4.8/9.5 cm/sec or 1 7/8 & 3 3/4 ips in old money). It had an automatic level control and simple mixing facilities, a mechanical digital tape counter and a remote pause function on the microphone (which lives in a compartment on the underside). It has a good range of inputs and outputs and a meaty 7-transistor amplifier pumping a little over a watt into a good-sized elliptical speaker. It takes reel sizes up to 128mm (5-inches), which hold 180 metres (600 feet) of tape, for around 30 or 60 minutes (depending on the speed), of recording and playback per side. The only minus points are the fact that itís a mono machine, which was a bit of a throwback in a world increasingly accustomed to stereo sounds, and the audio quality which, to be brutally honest, is unremarkable.

 

It is very easy to use with just one mechanical tape transport control, a simple joystick that selects Play, Forward and Reverse fast wind. Changing the tape speed is a bit of a faff, though. Going from fast to slow involves removing the tape head cover unscrewing the capstan roller next to the pinch roller and stowing it on a small pillar close to the joystick control. Everything else is next to idiot proof, including the recording level, which is handled automatically. Thereís a simple pause switch on the microphone and for portable operation all you need is a set of 6 1.5 volt D cells, which will keep it running for a couple of hours. Mains operation relies on a proprietary, and rather dodgy looking male three-pin plug sticking out of the side of the machine. It looks a bit flimsy, and I suspect quite sparky if the lead is pulled out quickly or accidentally.

 

This one had obviously been well cared for, prior to its appearance at a local car boot sale, and the last owner may well have been a jazz fan, judging by what was on the reel of tape that came with it. The stallholder (a regular at this event) said it came from a house clearance some weeks previously. It had been on his stall for the last three Sundays and he was surprised that no one was interested. It would have attracted more attention if he hadnít put it in with a load of kitchen junk, and given it a wipe over. He was asking £5.00 for it, I offered £3.00 and the deal was done. Iíd had a chance to check the battery compartment and it was filled with a set of crusty looking EverReady D cells. They were stuck fast and may have leaked, which could be why there had been no other takers. Iíve become a dab hand at removing battery leakage and repairing the damage so it doesnít worry me; £3.00 wasnít much of a gamble since the tape spools were worth that on their own.

 

It turned out to be very lucky find indeed, and surprisingly well made, which undoubtedly contributed to its survival. Fortunately the batteries hadnít leaked and the compartment was free of corrosive gunge. Following a general muck-out, oil change and thorough internal and external clean up, it worked straight away. The only very minor problems were a scratchy volume control (quickly sorted with a squirt of contact cleaner), and an unreliable fast wind. This was also speedily fixed by re-seating a spring, used to keep an idler wheel in position. Sound quality and volume were pretty much as expected, about right for a late 60ís mono tape recorder. Itís possible a little more could be squeezed out of it by changing the aging electrolytic capacitors but since it was working adequately well I decided to let sleeping dogs lie. Invariably, as soon as I start messing about with one thing, something else comes out in sympathyÖ    

 

What Happened To It?

References to the MR-115, in reviews and adverts in audio and electronics magazines of the period, fizzle out by 1971, which suggests that it was on sale for just two or three years. Nevertheless Sanyo was a respected name back then and no doubt a fair few were sold, in spite of the price, which at the time was considerably more that even top-end cassette players. MR-115ís make very occasional appearances on ebay and typically sell for £25 - £50, depending on the condition, so this one was a very good deal. Itís not going to make me or anyone else rich, though. Sadly itís not a classic, or notable for any particularly innovative features, but it did have its part to play Ė albeit only a small one -- in the long history of sound recording so it deserves this brief mention for posterity and if you ever stumble upon a clean one selling for silly money, do your duty, save it from the tip and give it good home.


GIZMO GUIDE

First seen         1969

Original Price   49 gns (£51.48)

Value Today     £30.00 (1016)

Features           2-track mains/battery portable tape recorder 128mm/5-inch reels, 2-speed: 4.8/9.5 cm/sec (1 7/8 & 3 3/4 ips), automatic level control, 3-digit mechanical tape counter, 2-source mixing (mike & line in), remote pause on mike, AC bias, DC erase, 1.2w output, 155mm/6.25 elliptical speaker, rotary volume & tone control, response: 9.5cm/s 150 Ė 6kHz, 4.8cm/s 150 Ė 4kHz, line in, microphone & ext speaker 3.5mm mono jack, remote pause 2.5mm jack, proprietary 3-pin mains connector  

Power req.                     115/230VAC 50/60Hz mains & 6 x 1.5 volt ĎDí cells

Dimensions:                   288 x 268 x 100mm

Weight:                          4.4kg

Made (assembled) in:    Japan

Hen's Teeth (10 rarest):  6


Royal/Royco 410 Miniature Tape Recorder 1962

Most of us will have memories of a cherished toy or two from our childhood; here is one of mine. Itís a Royal miniature reel-to-reel tape recorder, dating from the early sixties. Sadly that machine is long gone. It would have ended up in bits shortly after I acquired it, following my best efforts to find out how it worked and futile attempts to put it back together again. It didnít die in vain, though; it helped to fuel a lifelong enthusiasm and eventually a career centred on electronics, technology and a love of gadgets.

 

Back in the late nineties, in a fit of nostalgia (or possibly one or two too many beers), I made it my business to honour its passing and get another one. It took a while but I eventually managed to track one down. One thing led to another and now Iím knee-deep in old tech from my youth, but it was definitely worth it, and it keeps me off the streets. This is its storyÖ

 

In common with most of the other cheap and cheerful mini tape recorders from that era it was essentially a toy. With such poor performance and limited facilities there are very few serious applications for such a machine but I suspect that a fair number were sold during a brief fad for sending short audio messages on tape or Ďvoice lettersí to distant friends and relatives. However, the vast majority probably ended up in the hands of youngsters like me. To the average sixties sub-teen a small device, not much larger than a book with the ability to record, and playback sounds -- if only for a few minutes -- was pure magic (there wasnít much in the way of kidís entertainment back thenÖ). Better yet, it didnít look like a toy; indeed many similar models had bit parts in movies and TV cop and spy shows, pretending to be serious surveillance kit. I canít point to any actual large or small screen appearances of this model (also sold as the Royco 410), but I would be very surprised if it hadnít been used as a film prop at some time or another.

 

It is a smart looking little machine, and very well built with an all-metal chassis. Nevertheless, the heart of the machine, the tape transport mechanism, is about as basic as it gets. Itís a rim-drive type whereby a single motor powers both Play/Record and Rewind functions. It is elegantly simple, though. The motor is mounted on a pivot, controlled by the knob in the centre of the front panel. This tilts the motor so that one of its two spindles comes into contact with the rubberised rims of the two tape reel platters. The left hand spindle is fitted with a brass bush, which acts like a gear, so the reel spins faster in Rewind mode. On the plus side it works, and thereís very little to go wrong.

 

The downside is speed stability, which is poor because rate at which the tape passes the tape head varies, as one reel empties and the other one fills up. Nominally it runs at the industry standard 4.76 cm/sec (1 7/8 in/sec), but this can change by as much as 20 percent over the length of a tape. It doesnít matter too much if tapes are only ever replayed on the machines on which they were made, but compatibility goes out of the window on other machines, especially ones with fixed speed capstan drive transport mechanisms. None of this would have concerned most userís though, proper grown up reel to reel tape recorders in the home were still a bit of rarity in the 1960s, and for its one and only practical application, voice messaging, all you had to do was make sure that the recipient had the same or a similar model.

 

Other than the ultra simple deck mechanism, compact size and build quality thereís not much else to say, though a couple of features deserve a brief mention. It has a permanent magnet erase head, which is pretty much as it sounds; in Record mode the previous recording is erased by a small permanent magnet that comes into contact with the tape, just before it passes in front of the record/replay head. Itís simple and effective and the Record/Play switch on the front panel that swings the magnet into place also moves a red coloured indicator to show that the machine is in record mode. The two sockets on the right side of the control panel are for the supplied crystal microphone (lapel type) and a magnetic earphone, and last but not least, power for the motor is supplied by a pair of 1.5 volt C cells and the 4-transistor audio amplifier Ė used for both recording and playback Ė uses a 9v PP3 type battery. The three of them live in a compartment on the underside of the machine.

 

My original Royal machine almost certainly came from one of my favourite haunts, a truly marvellous place in Londonís High Holborn called Headquarters & General. It specialised in flogging army surplus equipment and electronic gadgets like the Royal. I am fairly sure it was priced at £4 19 shillings and sixpence (I came across an ad some time ago in an old issue of Exchange & Mart, another treasure trove of old sixties techÖ). I canít remember exactly when I bought this one but I reckon it was sometime around 1998-9, from a US seller on early days ebay, and I doubt that I paid more than £5.00 for it, plus the same again for postage. It came in its original polystyrene packaging and was in near perfect condition. In fact it was so clean that I doubt that it had been out of the box more than a couple of times in the previous 30 plus years. The mechanics just needed a few dabs of light oil to loosen things up but the audio section was as dead as a doornail. Fortunately it didnít need much work to get it running and swapping all of the old foil-type electrolytic capacitors for modern, and much more reliable tantalum types, was all that it needed. Itís pointless dwelling on performance. By any measure itís pretty dire but you have to cast your mind back to a simpler time, when home audio recording was in its infancy and for it even to be possible on a machine as small as this one, was genuinely impressive.

 

What Happened To It?

Virtually all reel-to-reel tape recorders were doomed by the runaway success of the Philips Compact Cassette. The first cassette recorders appeared in Ď63 and to begin with they were quite expensive with, but by the end of the decade it was all over for open reel. The price of cassette decks and tapes fell rapidly and performance was on a steep upward curve. Reel to reel technology survived in high-end audio and professional markets but the low end was completely wiped out.

 

These little machines had a low survival rate and the vast majority would have been thrown away the moment they failed or replaced by a cassette recorder, so thereís no too many of them left. However, whilst collectors have begun to take an interest they have a fairly low status in the reel-toĖreel hierarchy and prices are still quite modest. There are a few exceptions, though, and anything with a connection to cult 60ís TV shows like Mission Impossible, Danger Man, The Man From U.N.C.L.E, and so on will attract a small premium. The Japanese companies that made these things were incredibly prolific and at the last count there were more than 100 makes and models of this type of machine. If you keep your eyes peeled it should still be possible to get a decent collection together for a relatively small outlay. Be quick, though, I suspect it wonít be long before serious tech collectors realise what theyíve been missing!


GIZMO GUIDE

First seen           1962

Original Price    £4 19s 6s (£4.97)

Value Today      £25 (0716)

Features           Single-speed, 2-track rim-drive deck mechanism (nom 1 7/8 ips), Play, Record, Rewind transport modes, permanent magnet erase, 55mm speaker, 4-transistor amplifier, folding carry handle, crystal microphone & magnetic earphone, microphone in & earphone out sockets (3.5mm mono jacks).

Power req.                     2 x 1.5v C cells & 1 x 9v PP3

Dimensions:                   207 x 115 x 66mm

Weight:                          800g

Made (assembled) in:    Japan

Hen's Teeth (10 rarest):  8


Stellaphone ST-456 Tape recorder, 1963

Sometimes the most unpromising looking piece of junk can turn out to be genuine treasure. This little Stellaphone ST 456 tape recorder is a good example. It came from a regular Midlands antique fair and was mixed in with a pile of household utensils and bric-a-brac; everything on show was priced at £1.00. At first glance it appeared to be a tatty old mains radio, though it was hard to say exactly what it was through the mud and grime. It was still there when most stallholders were packing up. The pickings had been slim that day, the pitch was on the way to the exit, so I grabbed it on the way out and it turned out to be one of the best pounds I had ever spent. More about the clean-up operation in a moment.

 

The Stellaphone ST-456, which dates from the early 60s, is a compact, semi portable reel-to-reel machine, aimed at home users. It may have one of the earliest mains-powered open reel machines with all transistor circuitry; valves were on the way out by that time but they were still quite common on big home decks until the mid sixties. It has a fairly basic spec with a single-speed 9.53cm/sec (3.75 ips) capstan drive deck mechanism, but it does have 4-track recording (two mono tracks per side), a moving coil level meter and a good selection of inputs and outputs, including a phono input socket for connecting to a record deck. The maximum reel size is 15cm (6-inches) so itís capable of recording for almost 4 hours on a single tape.

 

Although this model was probably only ever sold in the UK it would work happily in most other countries. On the underside, in the mains lead storage compartment thereís a rotary voltage selector (110, 220 and 245VAC) and a label close to the single motor shows two positions for the drive belt. This is to compensate for speed variations in 50 and 60Hz mains supplies. A chunky flywheel further maintains speed stability and this transfers motion to the feed and pick up reels through a set of rubber-rimmed idler wheels. These are all mechanically operated with Play, Stop, Fast Forward and Rewind functions selected by single knob/lever on the right hand side; record mode is engaged by pressing the button on the left side. Everything is bolted to hefty metal chassis and it is quite clearly built to last.

 

Without knowing anything about how well it had been treated and the conditions it had been kept in, there was no way I was going to plug it in to a mains socket so it was treated to a complete strip down and clean up, to assess the damage. The first very pleasant surprise was the condition of the plastic case. Once the layers of gunk had been removed not only was it completely intact, there were no cracks or serious surface marks anywhere. The deck mechanism was a scary sight, though. Decades of dirt, dust and fluff, sucked in by the cooling fan on the motor, had become encrusted into the dried out oil and grease on almost every moving part. Removal involved liberal applications of Isopropyl alcohol, before any lubricants could be re-applied.

 

Unfortunately, no matter how well theyíre made, the rubber components (belts etc.) in most tape recorders from the 60s and 70s tend to decompose, either by becoming soft or gooey, or hard and brittle. This one was no different and the main drive belt had snapped long ago, and bits of rubber from the first idler were scattered around the bottom of the case. A new belt was easy to find and fit but the rubber on the idler had to be replaced. I decided to experiment with a couple of oversize washers. These were bored out and fitted onto the capstan cylinder then reduced in diameter by gently sanding them down by spinning it in the chuck of my pillar drill. It sounds a lot more complicated and Heath Robinson than it is but it only took around fifteen minutes, and as weíll see, it worked perfectly. The alternative would have been to search -- probably in vain -- for a vintage replacement part, have it professionally refurbished or get a new one made. Either way it would have cost vastly more than this machine is worth.   

 

At last the time came to see if there was any chance of getting it to work, or was it destined to join the growing queue in the rainy-day renovation box? After checking mains side components for signs of burning, making sure there were no loose wires and all of the mechanical parts were moving freely I plugged it in and waited for the bang. There wasnít one, or any worrying smells or smoke. The motor spun up to speed and all of the wheels turned, doing what they were supposed to do. I wasnít expecting anything from the amplifier; at the very least the electrolytic capacitors would probably need replacing and early germanium transistors have a nasty habit of popping their clogs if you so much as look at them, but there was an encouraging click from the speaker when it first turned on. However, after loading a tape all that could be heard was a low hum. This was still a good sign, though, and I found that pressing hard on the record button produced a surprisingly loud hiss, but there was still nothing from the tape. That was when I spotted a thick deposit of crud, which I had missed, on the face of the record/replay head. More isopropyl alcohol on cotton buds took care of that, and several squirts of switch cleaner on the sliding mode switch on the PCB sorted the gungy contacts. The next time it was powered up it was back in business, quite possibly for the first time in many years. 

Some components are undoubtedly on borrowed time and will eventually need replacing but I am a great believer in the old maxim, 'if it 'aint broke...      

 

For such an old machine sound quality and volume is not half bad. Speed stability appears to be spot on too and although thereís a fair amount of background hiss, listening to music, even though itís mono, is by no means hard on the ears. The deck mechanism is a bit clunky and still a little stiff but that should free up with time and use. All in all itís a still a pretty decent piece of kit and cleaned and polished it looks pretty sharp too.

 

What Happened To It?

Stella Radio and Television Ltd, latterly of Oxford Street in London, began trading in 1953. However, as far as I can determine they never actually made anything. The Stella brand was created by the Dutch electronics giant Philips; legend has it the name derives from the stars, which appear on the Philips logo. Stella and Stellaphone products were manufactured by Philips in Austria and this sort of thing was quite common back then.

 

The idea was Philipsí prestigeous premium products could be sold exclusively by its network of authorised dealers, whilst slightly cheaper or lower spec (but essentially identical under the skin) Stella branded products were distributed through wholesalers, department stores and so on. This meant that they could sell their stuff to the lower orders, on Ďtickí if required (also known as the never-never or hire-purchase), without tarnishing the parent companyís image. A lot of electronics manufacturers did this (for example, Thorn EMI's brands included Baird, Ferguson, HMV, Marconiphone, Radio Rentals Ultra etc.) and it carried on until well into the 70s, when credit cards became widespread, removing the perceived stigma of HP. Stella never made it that far, though and it went into voluntary liquidation in 1966. The range had stagnated but in any case Philips virtually pulled the plug on home reel-to-reel tape recorders when they introduced the Compact Cassette, not long after the ST-546 appeared.

 

There has always been a lot of interest in reel-to-reel tape recorders but since the takeover by cassette, and more recently digital media, it has been largely confined to collectors of high-end, high performance models, and, to a lesser extent, ultra small and novelty machines. This has left a lot of ordinary, middle of the road models like the ST-546, out in the cold, and in many cases, to end their days quietly rotting away or ending up in landfill. Ironically that means that these largely unloved and uncared for recorders are becoming quite rare and if you combine that with the current trends for retro, vintage and all things sixties, prices are starting to climb. Itís also possible the still growing interest in vinyl recordings will spill over into reel-to-reel tape recording. Weíre at the beginning of that process, though, and finds like this are not uncommon, though youíll be lucky to find another one as cheap as this so expect to pay a bit more than £1 for anything that stands a decent chance of restoration, If you want one that you can plug in and use be prepared to shell out upwards of £25 to £30, and somewhere north of £50 for a really clean example. 


GIZMO GUIDE

First seen                1963

Original Price         28 guineas (£29.40)

Value Today           £20 (0616)

Features                 4-track, capstan drive, 3.75 ips (9.53cms), 15cm max reel size, VU meter, 6 transistors (2 x OC75, 2 x AC107, 2 x OC74), built-in 95mm internal speaker, microphone & phono inputs (5-pin DIN), external speaker, built-in carry handle

Power req.                    110 Ė 245VAC (selectable) 50/60Hz

Dimensions:                  300 x 240 x 140mm

Weight:                         5kg

Made (assembled) in:    Austria

Hen's Teeth (10 rarest):  8


Sony M-100MC Micín Microcassette Corder, 1997

It seems like only yesterday that Sony was a byword for innovation and style in consumer electronics and once upon a time it could have taught Apple a thing a two when it came to design and clever marketing. By the late 1990s a combination of the faltering Japanese economy, the rise and rise of Korean and Chinese manufacturers, slow reactions to changing markets and a distinct lack of wow-factor products resulted in a fast decline. Sony didnít give up without a struggle though, it managed a few flashes of the old brilliance and the M-100MC Micín Micro was one of them. Itís a Microcassette tape recorder and, as well as being superbly well specified, itís a real eyeful but the sad fact is it was just a bit too late, and niche, to get it the sort of attention it deserved.

 

At first, and even second glance it looks a lot like a tiny camcorder, and that cannot have been a coincidence. In the late 90s the home video market was enjoying a resurgence following the introduction of digital camcorders and small, high performance machines were coming out of the woodwork. Fortunately the M-1000ís styling also happens to be entirely practical; it fits comfortably in the hand, for dictation or reporting and the built-in stand makes it ideal for desktop recording.

 

The bit at the front that looks like a lens barrel houses a versatile microphone with switchable uni or omni-directional sensitivity, so itís equally at home dictating, recording interviews, boardroom meetings or a lecture in a large auditorium. Important passages can be bookmarked using the Cue function, which records a discreet buzz/bleep sound on replay and thereís a voice activated recording (VOR) feature that saves tape and battery power by only recording when the microphone picks up sounds. For good measure it also has a 3-digit tape counter, fast playback mode and one-handed controls for play, record, pause, cue and review functions. The Microcassettes it uses lasts for up to an hour (30 minutes a side) and it runs on a pair of AA cells. All that plus the legendary Sony build quality, a precision deck mechanism and proprietary Clear Voice noise reduction system adds up to a small, cute and in spite of the highish price (around £85 at launch) an extremely capable pocket tape recorder. About the only thing they got wrong was to call it Micín Micro; definitely not one of Sonyís more memorable product namesÖ

 

I had a brief encounter with the M-100MC at an unrelated Sony product launch in late 1996 and recall that the distinctive styling and advanced features generated a lot of interest with my consumer press colleagues. However, despite requests to review it Sony reckoned that it was aimed at the business market so it probably received little publicity outside of the specialist office equipment magazines. Fifteen years later I found this one looking sad and lonely on a table at a south coast car boot sale. The stallholder reckoned quite a few people had looked at it, thinking it was a camcorder but put it down as soon as they realised it was a just tape recorder. This may explain why he was happy to accept my offer of £3.00 for it (he wanted £8). It came with a set of batteries and a tape and I was able to test it on the spot. Not only did it work, it was in excellent condition, so that was definitely three quid well spent.

 

What Happened To It?

Whilst business users were undoubtedly the target market for pocket-sized dictating machines like this one I suspect that given the Sony name, eye-catching looks and a genuinely useful line up of features the Micín Micro might have appealed to a much wider audience (especially if they had given it a less cheesy name). Sony may well have missed a trick by not putting a bit more effort into promoting it, but the clock was already ticking. By the early noughties analogue tape-based recording systems were winding down Ė excuse the pun. Digital voice recording devices were popping up all over the place and it was even starting to appear on mobile phones as an added feature.

 

Itís difficult to say when Sony stopped making them but I would be surprised if production continued much beyond 2002/3. It seems to be have been quite popular in the US, though, where thereís always a few for sale on ebay, often in Ďas-newí condition or NOS (new old stock) and usually for a fraction of the original selling price. Itís still a very useable little gadget and in performance terms it compares favourably with many of todayís digital recording gadgets, thanks largely to the quality mike. Sadly thereís no escaping the fact that itís vintage technology, with lots of mechanical parts that are going to fail sooner or later but donít let that put you off. Clean working examples are going to become increasingly scarce and because the Sony brand still has a lot of kudos over time prices should go up so if you want one you probably shouldnít leave it too long.      


GIZMO GUIDE

First seen               1997

Original Price         £85

Value Today           £10 - 20 (0416)

Features                 Microcassette tape, capstan drive, 2-speed (1.2 & 2.4cm/sec), switchable uni/omni-directional microphone, 3 level mic sensitivity (lecture, meeting, dictation), VOR (voice operated recording), cue marker, 3 LED battery/record level, cue/review, fast playback, built-in folding desktop stand, tape counter 

Power req.                     2 x 1.5 AA cells

Dimensions:                   126 x 68 x 40mm

Weight:                          180g

Made (assembled) in:    Japan

Hen's Teeth (10 rarest):  6


Midland 12-204 Mini Tape Recorder, 1964

As 1960s miniature reel-to-reel tape recorders go the Midland 12-205 is technically unremarkable and towards the larger end of the scale but that certainly doesnít lessen its appeal. To put the size issue into context, itís just a little bigger than a hard-back book. It also has the distinction of being one of the most popular designs of its day. The transport mechanism and chassis is used on at least a dozen different models that I am aware of, and probably a great many more. Itís not difficult to see why though; itís an incredibly simple design with a single motor providing the motive power for both forward and rewind transport modes. Thereís a bare minimum of controls, a rudimentary 4-transistor amplifier and all-metal chassis, so the ones that have survived intact stand a fair chance of still working, or being fairly easy to fix.

 

Before we get too carried away itís worth pointing out that, like the majority of small, cheap tape recorders from the early sixties, it is not a serious audio recording instrument. In fact it is little more than a toy but it would be unfair not to acknowledge the creative skills and ingenuity that went into its design and manufacture. The key feature, and one of the reasons that these cute little machines were so cheap Ė they mostly sold for between £5 and £10 -- is that a single motor operates the whole tape transport system, using a technique known as rim-drive.

 

Weíve described how this works many times before but for those who missed it the basic idea is that the motor is mounted on a pivot that is tilted by the central control knob on the front panel so that the spindles emerging both ends of the motor come into contact with one or the other rubber rimmed tape capstans or platters.

 

The spindle on the left side is fitted with a brass bush so that when this is pressed against the left reel, in Rewind mode, it spins the platter clockwise at a relatively high speed. The right end of the spindle is unbushed, so when this comes into contact with the right-hand platter it turns counter clockwise, at a much slower speed, drawing the tape past the single record/replay head at a nominal 1 7/8 inches per second. In practice the speed varies considerably, as one tape reel empties and the other fills up. Itís not a huge problem if the tape is replayed on the machine it was recorded on, but tapes from other recorders can sound a bit weird so the manufacturers have helpfully given this model a variable speed control.

 

Apart from the speed variation there is another problem with rim-drive mechanisms and that is thereís no easy way to fast-forward a tape, other than by turning the reels over and rewinding the tape. Another common cost-cutting feature is the lack of an erase head. Some means of wiping the tape before making a new recording one is essential, though, as the new and old sounds would be heard together. The solution in this case is to use a small permanent magnet. This is mounted on a swing arm and in Record mode it comes into contact with the tape immediately before it passes the recording head. 

   

In spite of its simplicity it really does work, though the quality is only good enough for speech and recording time is limited to around 10 Ė 15 minutes per track. As well as being popular with youngsters they also proved useful for dictation and audio letters; a lot of these machines ended up in the hands of military personnel serving abroad, so they could exchange tapes and keep in touch with family and friends back home.

 

The Midland 12-204 was pretty typical of the breed, it is powered by a set of readily available batteries, two 1.5-volt ĎCí cells for the motor and a 9-volt PP3 for the amplifier and these fit into a lidded compartment to the rear of the tape reels. The outfit also includes a piezo or Ďcrystalí tie-clip type microphone and a magnetic earpiece, which mutes the internal 55mm speaker when it is plugged in. Thereís also a carry strap and itís attached to the case by a clever buckle arrangement that doubles up as latches for the detachable case lid.

 

This is one of a pair of Midland tape recorders that came from a fellow collector around twenty years ago. As I recall I swapped them for one of my machines, which he lacked in his collection. It was a good deal; both of them were and still are in excellent condition, and they were fully working, though subsequently the electrolytic capacitors on the amplifier circuit boards have been replaced. They were also complete with their original accessories, boxes and polystyrene packing.

 

What Happened To It?

I cannot be certain if the Midland brand is the same or has evolved into the US-based company of the same name that is now involved in the manufacture of communications equipment. However, in the 1970s Ė which is as far back as the present companyís history extends Ė it was one of the leading brands in Citizens Band Radio equipment, and most Midland products were made in Japan, so there may well be a connection.

 

Either way small reel-to-reel tape recorders like this one came and went roughly between 1962 and 1968. Their novelty value was quickly lost following the introduction of the Philips Compact Cassette format, which rendered virtually all domestic open-reel tape recorders obsolete by the end of the sixties.

 

Small machines had been pouring out of Japan at this time and there were hundreds of different makes and models. Many of them, like this one, shared common components and mechanisms but most were poorly made, and even if the Cassette hadnít arrived when it did, it is unlikely that many of them ever lasted longer than a year or two. That means that with few exceptions the ones that are still around were better made and built to last, worth preserving, and potentially a good investment.

 

Thereís another reason to seek them out and quite a few mini tape recorders made cameo appearances in spy and detective movies and TV series. Dozens famously went up in smoke in the opening sequences of the original Mission Impossible and they always attract a premium on ebay. Sadly I havenít been able to connect this one to any films or TV programmes but if an when I do, and I can make a decent screen grab, my Ďspareí one will be on ebay like a shot. As it stands, on a good day it would probably fetch between £30 and £40; a verifiable small or big screen appearance could easily add another £20, particularly if itís in a well-known film or programme. 


GIZMO GUIDE

First seen                  1964

Original Price           £5.00

Value Today             £30 (0316)

Features                   2-track, rim-drive mechanism, variable speed, max reel size 75mm/3-inches, nominal tape speed 1 7/8 ips, 4-transistor amplifier, permanent magnet erase, Forward/Record, Rewind & Stop transport modes, 55mm speaker, detachable lid, carry strap, crystal microphone & magnetic earphone included

Power req.                    2 x 1.5-volt C cells & 1 x PP3 9-volt battery

Dimensions:                  210 x 155 x 67mm

Weight:                          1.1kg

Made (assembled) in:    Japan

Hen's Teeth (10 rarest):  5


Benkson 79 Mini Tape Recorder, 1964

The vast majority of miniature reel-to-reel tape recorders sold in the early sixties were cheaply made and definitely not built to last. They were, after all, mostly toys and not designed for serious audio recording. Many were made, and there were hundreds of different makes and models, but the relatively small number of them that survived intact, and their often-quirky looks, has resulted in a small but growing collectorís market.

 

This is one of them; itís a Benkson 79 and it fits the basic criteria in that it was made in Japan in around 1964. It is small, not much larger than hardback book; it takes reels up to 85mm/3.5inch in diameter and it has a cranky rim-drive mechanism Ė more on that in a moment. Like most of its contemporaries the sound quality is dire, but in one important respect this one deviates from the norm. Itís the all-metal construction, and that includes the smart attachť-styled case. Thereís hardly a plastic part in sight, and you might suppose that this means that there are lots of them around. In fact the opposite is true and this is one of the rarer examples of the breed.

 

Ironically one of the main reasons why so few lasted into the twenty-first century is all that metalwork. Itís not well protected, just a thin layer of paint and some glued-on leatherette, so it was prone to rust. In the hands of itís intended owners Ė mostly young children Ė it was inevitable that sooner or later it would get wet, and unless it was dried off immediately, inside and out, it would be rusted beyond repair in a matter of days. Even if it didnít get a dunking rust would often take its toll, especially in humid environments.

 

How this one managed to escape the ravages of time must remain a mystery but it did, and is still in very fine fettle, but before we get to its current condition a few words about its most notable features. Like almost all low-cost tape recorders from that period it has a simple rim-drive mechanism. This uses a single motor, with a round bush on the end of the spindle. This presses against the rubber rims of one the two tape reel platters, depending which transport mode (Play/Record or Rewind) has been selected. It seems like a good idea but the problem is the speed at which the tape moves past the tape head. It varies significantly, as the take-up reel fills and the supply reel empties of tape. Itís not a huge problem if recordings are only ever played back on the machine they were made but the speed variation does become very noticeable on other rim-drive machines, or tape recorders with a constant-speed capstan-drive mechanism. The other big disadvantage is that itís difficult to incorporate a fast-forward function, and rewind speeds are generally quite sedate. Another unusual feature of the Benkson 79 is the Fast/Slow speed option (nominally 1 7/8 and 3.75 inches per second), but all this really does is reduce record/replay time on a full spool of tape from around ten minutes, to five.

 

There are few controls; it has a three-position rotary switch for selecting transport mode and two slide switches for selecting tape speed (Fast/Slow) and Record/Play mode. The latter moves a small permanent magnet into contact with the tape in record mode, to erase the previous recording. Thereís a volume control knob in the top right hand corner of the deck and two 3.5mm minijack sockets for the microphone and an earphone. A small 60mm speaker is mounted on the bottom right corner. You may have noticed that the tape path is a bit convoluted and an extra guide post has been fitted to keep it clear of the control knob. It almost looks like an afterthought... In the close-up photo you should be able to see the reel platter drive bush, which pokes out of the crescent-shaped slot between the two reels.   

 

Inside the case everything is well spaced; all of the electronics Ė a simple 4-trasnistor push-pull amplifier Ė is mounted on a narrow PCB and the other key components are solidly made and rigidly mounted on the metal chassis. The three batteries that power it (2 x 1.5 volt C cells for the motor and 1 x 9 volt PP3 for the amp) are held in place by a pair of metal clamps. The standard of construction is typical for the time, which was pretty good, and should it need attention, everything is very easy to get at. 

 

This one was one of the earliest mini tape recorders in my collection, which I started more than 25 years ago. Condition is outstanding with no trace of corrosion, anywhere and it has only ever required a simple service to remove dried out grease and the application of light machine oil to moving parts.

 

I cannot remember exactly where it came from or how much I paid for it -- I rarely spent more than £5.00 back then -- but I am fairly sure I bought it in this country as the voices on the tape all have English accents, and I always try to keep any tapes I get with the machine they came with. Yes, it does still work, and itís one of the few 60ís recorders I've owned that hasnít needed any work on the amplifier board. Normally the electrolytic capacitors have to be replaced as they go short or leaky over time but these ones are well within spec. Thereís still plenty of volume but it goes without saying that the actual sound quality is as expected, noisy with a very narrow response so it is really only capable of speech recording.   

 

What Happened To It?

The market for almost all types of open reel-to-reel tape recorders went into a fast and permanent decline in 1963, following the launch of the Philips Compact Cassette. Cheap mini tapes recorders like this one were early casualties; cassette machines outperformed them on every conceivable level, and towards the end of the decade they were becoming cheaper as well. By the mid seventies little rim drive machines like he Benkson 79 had all but disappeared and the majority of those that remained ended their days in landfill.

 

Prices for these machines varies widely and it is still possible to strike lucky and pick one up at a car boot sale or on ebay for a few pounds but the general trend is upwards, especially for really small examples, any with an interesting heritage, like cameo appearances in TV programmes and movies and a small handful of distinctively styled or super-rare models. Price is also highly dependent on physical condition; good working order is a major bonus though most electrical and electronic faults are easy to fix so itís not necessarily a deal breaker. You can expect to pay anywhere between £25 and £50 for a decent runner, complete with reels and tape; and add another £10 to £20 if that also includes the original box, packing and instructions. At the top end of the market several exotic and iconic models can fetch upwards of £80 to £100 on ebay, possibly more on a good day with a couple of enthusiastic bidders on the case. Sadly Benkson 79s, even though thereís not many of them about, do not command the really big bucks but the few that do come up for auction generally sell for between £25 and £40 so itís worth keeping an eye out for under priced, and most importantly, rust-free bargains.    


GIZMO GUIDE

First seen                1964

Original Price         £10.00?

Value Today           £25 (0316)

Features                 Mono 2-track recording, 2-speed, max reel size 85mm/3.5-inch, rim drive, Record/Play, Stop & Rewind transport modes, microphone & earphone jacks (3.5mm mono minijack), permanent magnet erase, 60mm built-in speaker, leather carry strap

Power req.                    1 x 9v PP3 & 2 x 1.5v C cells

Dimensions:                  223 x 135 x 60mm

Weight:                         1.2kg

Made (assembled) in:    Japan

Hen's Teeth (10 rarest):  8


Fisher-Price 826 Cassette Recorder, 1986

A great many people over the age of 25 will instantly recognise and have either owned, purchased or known someone who had a Fisher-Price 826 cassette recorder. Yes, it is just a toy but that doesnít alter the fact that it was a true design classic and between 1981 and 1987 several hundred thousand, and quite possibly more than a million of them were made, (though I have yet to see a definitive number). What isnít in dispute is how well Fisher-Price knew their young (and older) customers.

 

For several generations of kids the 826, and the models that followed, was an introduction to recorded sound and their first brush with an electronic entertainment device and although it was designed for ages 5 and up, it was a proper cassette recorder with a four function tape deck (Play, Record, Rewind & Fast Forward), push button controls, built-in microphone and speaker and an integral carry handle.

 

The outfit came with a tape cassette; on one side it had tunes and stories and the other side was blank, so the young owner could try their hand at making recordings. Above all, though, it was super tough. The case is made of a thick, heavy duty plastic; drop it on a hard surface and like as not it will bounce. You can bash it, splash it with all sorts of wet and sticky substances and it will probably still work. Itís also tough on the inside and you can stab at the Eject and transport keys until you are blue in the face and throw it across the room in a tantrum and it should survive. In short it is almost indestructible, and there are plenty of them around, many of them still working.

 

Technically the internals are fairly unremarkable, except that they have been built to withstand a lot of punishment. One notable innovation is the use of a single chip amplifier (LM389), as opposed to a more conventional circuit (for the time) using discrete components and this would also have contributed to the unitís robustness and reliability. A lot of thought went into the design and layout of the innards. Potentially delicate parts are well protected and everything is very securely bolted down, even the cables are fixed into rigid guides, to stop them flailing around in the event of a tumble.

 

My own children (now in their late 20s) when they were toddlers gave one of them a very hard life, lasting four or five years; it lived to tell the tale, and went on to a second life with a friendís children. This one caught my eye recently at a local car boot sale. It stirred a few mixed memories (mostly of endlessly repeated nursery rhymes and Disney favouritesÖ), but with an asking of price of only 50 pence, it proved irresistible. Aside from the inevitable accumulations of gunge and grime it looked like it was in pretty good shape. Thanks to a stamp inside the case I can say with some certainty that it passed its final quality control check on the 31st of March 1986. Rather than try to scrub away the slimy nastiness I treated it to a full strip down, clean-up and rebuild and with a set of batteries installed it powered up and worked first time. Sound quality is still surprisingly good and although the volume was intentionally limited to avoid irritating young (and old) ears, itís still loud enough to be heard across a noisy room.

 

What Happened To It?

The 826 was hugely popular and it remained in production, virtually unchanged for around six years. It was eventually replaced by the 2209, a similar design but available in a range of colours. By that time it had spawned numerous imitations though with few exceptions they were not a patch on the 826. I doubt that many of them lasted more than a few months in the hands of the average 5 year old. Further additions to the Fisher-Price junior tape recorder range, up until the early noughties, by which time the tape cassette format had come to the end of its life. Kids, even ones as young as five, were becoming more technical savvy and being plied by the toy industry with vastly more sophisticated electronic toys and entertainment devices. For all that I doubt that children in the nineties and noughties playing with portable CD players, winking, bleeping and trundling toys had half as much fun as an eighties youngster with one of these.

 

Every so often I check the prices for 826ís on ebay and there really does seem to be a small but steady upward trend, particularly for really clean ones, and especially if they come with a box, instructions and the original freebie tape. However, donít get too excited, most of the interest seems to be in the US at the moment. It will probably be a while before they qualify as proper collectible here in the UK and stand any chance of increasing in value. The flip side is that this is the time to get hold of one, while they are still relatively cheap and easy to find. UK prices are currently hovering around the £5 to £10 mark, but the biggest bargains are to be had at car boot sales where you stand a fair chance of finding them for less than a fiver. Although they are by no means rare, with every passing year there will be fewer of them in circulation, and as the tape cassette slips deeper into obsolescence, influential and iconic designs like the 826 can only become harder to find, and more expensive.  


GIZMO GUIDE

First seen                1981

Original Price         £15

Value Today           £10 (0915)

Features                 Four function cassette deck (Play, Record, Fast Forward & Rewind), 70mm speaker, push-button controls, LM389 power amplifier

Power req.                       4 x 1.5v C Cells

Dimensions:                     178 x 196 x 82mm

Weight:                            860g

Made (assembled) in:       Mexico

Hen's Teeth (10 rarest):     4


AIWA TP-32A Mini Tape Recorder, 1963

Aiwa was one of a number of well known consumer electronic brands that flourished throughout the 1970s, 80s and 90s but suddenly vanished, almost overnight and with hardly anyone noticing, but weíll come back to that in a moment. However, in the decade before Aiwa rose to prominence in the hi-fi and video markets, it was making things like this small, and it has to be said, fairly crude little tape recorder. The TP-32A was one of hundreds of small, nondescript reel-to-reel machines Ė most of them little more than toys -- coming out of Japan in the early 1960s; it would be a while before Aiwa got into its stride with the sort of flair for design and manufacturing that would eventually make it a household name, though you can see evidence of this change in the TP-60, which came out a couple of years after the TP-32A.

 

Nevertheless, there are early signs of at least an attempt to be different, and although this machine is not what you would call pretty, it is fairly distinctive, with the large central transport mode knob and understated silver, brown and beige cosmetics. The specification is pretty basic, though, with two-track recording on standard 5mm (0.25-in) tape spooled on 84mm (3.25in) reels. This gives around 10 Ė 12 minutes recording time per side at a nominal 1 7/8 inches per second. The tape deck uses a simple rim-drive transport mechanism, based around a single motor with extended shafts. The motor is mounted on a pivot so that when the control knob is turned one of the two shafts comes into contact with the underside of the left or right tape reel platters. The left hand shaft is fitted with a brass bush, which makes the feed reel spin at a faster rate for the rewind function.

 

It works, and that is about the best you can say of any rim drive mechanism, but inevitably it suffers from speed instability; in fact it changes constantly, as one reel empties and the other fills up. Itís just about okay when replaying recordings of speech made on the same machine but hopeless if you want to listen to tapes recorded elsewhere, or on a tape recorder with a constant-speed capstan drive.

 

The only other controls are a volume knob and a slide switch for record mode, and this also moves a small permanent magnet so that it presses against the tape for the pre-record erase function. There are three jack sockets; the one to the left of the transport knob is for an earphone and the two on the right side (3.5 and 2.5mm) are for the microphone, which has a slide switch for a remote pause function. A 55mm speaker is built into the case (in front of the right hand take up reel) and it is powered by a single 1.5 volt D cell for the motor, and a 9 volt PP3 battery for the electronics. The latter is a simple 4-transistor push-pull amplifier, mounted on a bracket behind the speaker. Supplied accessories include the previously mentioned crystal microphone and a magnetic earphone, contained in a soft carry pouch. It also comes with a flexible carry strap that attaches to a pair of hinged loops, which double up as latches for the removable case lid.

 

This machine has been in my collection for around 10 years and I cannot recall exactly where it came from or how much I paid for it, but it wouldnít have been much more than a fiver, and it probably came from a flea market or antique fair. As you can see it is in remarkably good condition with hardly any signs of wear or tear. It also came complete with the instruction manual and all of its accessories; it even has the original Aiwa branded tape reels. Inside the case it is very clean and at some point I must have given it a good service, changed the oil and so on, as everything works like new, or rather as well as it ever did, and you can take it as read that sound quality is quite poor.

 

What Happened To It?

My guess is that the TP-32A was in production for a couple of years as Aiwa went on to make several more minature machines during the mid 1960s and during the next 20 years, a number of high-end reel-to-reel tape recorders. However, it would have been clear by the time the TP-32A appeared that Compact Cassette was destined to be the dominant tape format for home recording and Aiwa quickly became one of the early pioneers. At around this time Sony started to take a very strong interest in Aiwa and invested in the company; by the late 1960s it was the major shareholder, though this very close connection was not widely known outside of the industry.

 

Although the two companies had separate product ranges they were both heavily into portable and personal stereos and competed strongly in the middle and top end of the market. Unfortunately, in spite of broadening its reach to include some very decent audio, home cinema and video products, and some of them were quite successful, the Aiwa brand never had the glitz and cachet of Sony; by the end of the millennium it was in steep decline and heading towards bankruptcy. Sony came out of the closet and took over what was left if the company in 2002 and despite a couple of re-launches, aimed mostly at the youth and PC markets it never really recovered and production finally came to an end in 2006.

 

Back to the 1960s, and it appears that a fair number of TP-32As were made and the occasional survivor appears on ebay from time to time, though they are often in poor condition, with cracked cases, seized deck mechanisms or faulty electronics. Prices can vary widely, from a few pounds to £50 or more for a mint, boxed example. Itís unlikely ever to make the big time, though, itís just not that interesting but it certainly deserves a place in the companyís history, possibly even marking a turning point, when it stepped up its game and led to it becoming one of the worlds best known home entertainment brands.


GIZMO GUIDE

First seen                 1963 (manual)

Original Price           £10?

Value Today             £25 (0315)

Features           Single-speed rim-drive deck, twin-track recording approx. 1 7/8 ips, ľ-inch tape 84mm (3.25-in) reels, Play, Stop, Rewind transport functions, remote pause

Power req.                     1 x 1.5v D cell, 1 x 9v PP3

Dimensions:                   235 x 150 x 68mm

Weight:                          1.1 kg

Made (assembled) in:    Japan

Hen's Teeth (10 rarest):  7


National RQ-115 Tape Recorder Home Adaptor, 1964

In spite of the almost overnight success of Compact Cassette, which first appeared in 1963, there were several valiant attempts to maintain interest in small open reel machines for home use. This is one of them, the National RQ-115, which was pitched as a dual-purpose design. On its own it functioned as a reasonably portable, battery-powered machine, capable of halfway decent recording quality, and when connected to its companion Home Adaptor, it became a semi serious piece of home audio equipment. Needless to say Jacks-of-all-trades have a poor track record for not being particularly good at any one task. And so it was with the RQ-115, and this had the added disadvantage of stiff competition from Compact Cassette, which beat it hands-down on almost every level. 

 

The RQ-115 deserves to be remembered though, and it is a competent machine with several features found on high-end and even semi-pro recorders. It has a two-speed (4.75 & 9.5 cm/sec, 1 7/8 & 3 3/4 in/sec) capstan drive tape transport mechanism; the speed is altered (from slow to fast) by changing to a larger capstan idler roller, normally stowed on a pillar between the two reels. It has a full set of transport functions with everything except Fast Forward controlled from the large chrome plated lever (FF works in Play mode and is engaged by pressing a lockable push-button on the front). There are individual tone and volume controls, a recording level/battery meter, a built-in speaker, sockets for a microphone with remote pause function, and connections for the Home Adaptor module on which it sits when used at home.

 

Build quality and materials are well up to the standard that we have come to expect from National (the name changed to National Panasonic in 1980 and just Panasonic from 2008 onwards), however, there are a couple of issues. The most annoying one is the battery compartment, which takes 12 AA cells. In short it is almost impossible to load; they keep trying to jump out before you can close the cover. In the end the only way to do it is to get a friend to help hold them down, with a ruler or stiff piece of card while you gently attach the lid. The other, rather more serious problem, and one of the reasons it was never going to have much of an impact on the market is the 84mm reels. They hold enough tape for between 20 and 60 minutes worth of recording per side, which is okay for recording speech at the slowest speed but nowhere near long enough for music, especially at a time when 60 and 90-minute tape cassettes had become the norm.

 

The Home Adaptor has three basic functions. It serves as a convenient stand for the RQ-115 but its primary role is a mains adaptor. It was worth having for that alone as apart from the difficulty of loading a dozen AA cells, running on batteries could be an expensive business as it can get through a set in a couple of hours. It also serves as an extension speaker. Mounted on the base of the largely empty box thereís a chunky 10cm speaker, and itís a quality item, beefing up the 0.7watt output from the tape recorderís built-in amplifier. Normally having a downward facing speaker is a bad idea but Nationalís cunning plan was to fit the Adaptor with four tall, vane-shaped feet that direct the sound outwards. Provided it is placed on a solid (i.e. non-vibrating) surface, it doesnít sound too bad. Thereís also provision to make it sound even better, or at least louder, as thereís a slotted hole on the top panel so it can be hung on a wall, to direct the sound outwards   

 

I came by this one at the regular Sunday flea market held in Brighton Marina and after a little haggling I got the price down to £12.00. That was a tad more than I wanted to pay for something that was impossible to test, but a quick examination showed the two units to be in fair to good condition with no signs of corrosion in the battery compartment and the controls and reels operated freely. Later inspection revealed just two minor problems; the drive belts for the supply and take-up reels had both perished but they were quickly and easily replaced and after a thorough spring-clean and a few spots of oil, it worked faultlessly. Speed stability is very good indeed; for once the tone control actually does something and sound quality at both speeds would have been very acceptable for the time, especially when heard through the Home Adaptor,

 

What Happened To It?

Itís an oft-repeated story and the arrival of Compact Cassette meant the more or less instant demise of small low-end and mid-market portable reel-to-reel tape recorders. I cannot say for certain how long the RQ-115 was in production but I seriously doubt that it was much beyond 1967/8. Even with a price of around £20 - £25 it would have been a fairly niche product and I doubt that many were made; one thing is certain, though, and relatively few have survived, and RQ-115s with a home adaptor are few and far between. Prices on ebay seem quite modest and when they do come up for auction they rarely seem to make more than £20 to £30, which isnít a lot for such a smart, well made, and in its own way, boldly designed little machine.


GIZMO GUIDE

First seen          1964

Original Price   £20

Value Today     £30 (0115)

Features           Capstan drive, 2-speed 4.75 & 9.5 cm/sec (1 7/8 & 3 3/4 inches per sec) with interchangeable capstan, 1/4 inch tape, 84mm reels, Play/Record, Rewind & Fast Forward transport functions,0.7 w audio output, 6-trasnistor amp, battery/recording level meter, 75mm speaker remote pause, thumbwheel volume & tone controls, microphone & monitor out (3.5mm minijack), remote & AC Adaptor sockets, carry strap, leather carry case

Power req.                    12 x 1.5v AA cells, 9v DC external mains ĎHome Adaptorí

Dimensions:                  200 x 190 x 62mm

(Home Adaptor 200 x 190 x 75mm)

Weight:                         1.9kg (Home Adaptor 1.2kg)

Made (assembled) in:    Japan

Hen's Teeth (10 rarest):  7


Pion TC-601 Tape recorder, 1962

In 1961 a relatively obscure Japanese loudspeaker manufacturer, called Fukuin Denki -- which had been around since the late 1930s -- became the Pioneer Electronic Corporation, a name change that sat much easier with Western ears (and tonguesÖ). It showed foresight and good timing and a year later it made a proper name for itself by launching the worldís first separate stereo system. That same year, 1962, Pioneer introduced another new name, and product, the Pion TC-601 transistorised tape recorder, but this time both seem to have been largely forgotten. .

 

To some extent itís understandable; the TC-601 is technically unremarkable and was one of scores, and quite possibly hundreds of small tape recorders coming out of Japan in the early sixties. The crude rim-drive tape transport mechanism meant it was little more than a toy, really only capable of recording speech, and the twin-track recording system and 3-inch tape reels limited running times to around 10 to 15 minutes per side.

 

There are, however a few interesting features. The first one is the detachable speaker/microphone module, which sits in a compartment on the right side of the case; the other one is the unusually smart and stylish case; it is also worth saying that it is well put together and sturdily made from quality materials, all signs of things to come. Unfortunately that is about as far as it goes, it is not exactly pocket sized, which would have given it some credibility as a dictating machine, it has no special talents and record/replay quality is pretty much as you would expect and not helped by the limited dynamic range of a small speaker, acting as a microphone.

 

I cannot recall exactly when, or where this one came from but I suspect it was bought from ebay or one of its early rivals, probably in the early noughties. It is also likely that it came from North America; Canada is a distinct possibility as there is a sticker in the battery compartment with the name Importhouse of Canada and an address in Scarborough, Ontario. I rarely paid more than £5 - £10 for small tape recorders in those days and shipping charges were still quite reasonable. What is certain is the condition; it is close to mint with virtually no signs of use or wear, in fact I doubt that it was ever removed from the box. Inside the case thereís not a speck of dust, no scratches or corrosion on the battery contacts and the record/replay head looks as clean and shiny as the day it was made.

 

What Happened To It?

Without anything to set it apart from all of the other small and cheap sixties tape recorders Ė and it was a very crowded market Ė it probably wasnít around for very long. In any case Pioneer was busy getting involved in more serious audio products, so this little machine is probably quite rare. I cannot recall ever seeing more than one or two other examples over the years. In theory this should make it quite valuable but collectors of vintage tape recorders tend to be mostly interested in larger and more sophisticated machines. Given its condition and the fact that it comes with its original box and foam packing it might make £30 or so on a good day, possibly a little more if it came to the attention of a hardcore Pioneer enthusiast but whilst it is never going to make anyone rich, it is quite good news for the small band of  mini tape recordcer collectors and it is still possible to pick up the (very) occasional bargain.


GIZMO GUIDE

First seen               1962

Original Price         £10

Value Today           £30 (1214)

Features                 2-track (double sided) 0.25-inch/6mm tape 76mm (3-inch) reels, single motor, rim drive mechanism, detachable microphone/speaker, 4-transistor amplifier

Power req.                    2 x 1.5v C cells, 1 x 9v PP3

Dimensions:                  265 x 93 x 58mm

Weight:                         700g

Made (assembled) in:    Japan

Hen's Teeth (10 rarest):  8


Dokorder PT-4K Mini Tape Recorder, 1965

1960s miniature reel-to-reel tape recorders generally fall into one of two broad categories. The vast majority of them are essentially cheap toys, but no less interesting for that. The rest are altogether more serious, designed for the most part for dictation, with the odd sub-miniature model aimed at the security and surveillance market. Then thereís the Dokorder PT-4K. Itís a bit of a maverick, neither fish nor fowl, a little too large and heavy for dictation and, as always, limited by how much tape can be spooled onto a 3.25-inch reel (around 15 minutes worth). Nevertheless it is capable of half-decent speech reproduction, thanks to a chunky motor and flywheel stabilised capstan drive mechanism, but itís not quite good enough for music recording.

 

Itís a quirky design, a bit of a committee job by the looks of it with the person responsible for the controls not speaking to the chap who designed the case, or the bloke with the apparently thankless task of figuring out where to put all of the sockets. Either that or someone just threw all for the parts into a table and where they fell is where they ended up on the final productÖ Maybe thatís a little unfair, and once you get used to the fact that nothing is where you expect to find it, itís many idiosyncrasies are quite endearing, and it does look unusual, especially the weird deck layout.

 

The capstan and pinch wheel are a case in point, theyíre top centre, immediately before the take up reel, and you may have noticed in the specs that itís a two-speed design ((1.7/8 & 1.3/4 ips). This is accomplished by swapping sleeved capstan rollers Ė one thick (slow) and one thin (fast) -- and you can see the second one (for the slower speed) screwed in to the top panel, to the right of the pinch roller. There are two heads, the one on the left is a magnetic erase head and it rotates, to bring a tiny permanent magnet inside the head cylinder into contact with the tape. A pair of spring loaded pressure pads are mounted in front of the heads on a hinged plate, making it easier to thread the tape and clean the heads and in case you get confused the convoluted tape path is handily printed on the top of the deck panel.

 

There are plenty of other small oddities. For example a set of shiny smooth-action push button controls for Stop, Play and Record have been very craftily concealed on the back panel where you canít see or get to them, but thereís a large, ugly and stiff rewind lever stuck on the left side, along with the volume control and a microscopic meter for recording level and battery condition. On the bottom edge thereís a slot for the battery holder (5 x AA cells), which probably sounds like a good idea, except that thereís no easy way to get it out, without resorting to a screwdriver.

 

I have had this PT-4K for at least ten years. I cannot recall exactly where it came from but it was probably early-days ebay, or one of the other auction sites around at the time that I used to frequent, before ebay swallowed them all up, but the one thing I can say for certain is that I would not have paid much more than £5.00 for it.

 

Thanks to the high standard of construction and quality materials, like the all metal case and chassis, it was then and still is in good working order but it will win no prizes for sound quality, However, unlike most other mini tape recorders from that era, the tape speed is rock solid, and it is surprisingly loud, thanks to a beefy 6-transistor amplifier. The general condition is good, it has a few minor dinks and scuffs but generally speaking it has worn quite well.

 

What Happened To It? 

To the right of the battery compartment is the makerís name badge and here we find another minor curiosity. This says the PT-4K was made by Denki Onkyo Co. Ltd, and the few mentions that I have found on the web usually reckon that the company behind the Dokorder brand became either Onkyo, or Denon. In fact neither is right. Denki is Japanese for light, as in light-industry, and Onkyo is a fairly common word for sound harmony; well-known Hi-Fi brand brand Onkyo is an entirely different company. Denon has nothing to do with it either, though  the confusion probably arose because it is a contraction of Japan Denki Onkyo Ltd, an unconnected company, which became Denon when it merged with Nippon Columbia.

 

By the time this machine hit the shelves the days of reel-to-reel tape recorders were already numbered, curtailed by the arrival of the Philips Compact Cassette in 1963, which out-performed machines like this on almost every level. By the late 60s Denki Onkyo appears to have moved away from small machines like this, and into high-end and specialist models, but it never made the big time and in 1982 was taken over by Murata Manufacturing, which nowadays makes electronic components and a bike riding robot called Murata Boy.

 

Average Dokorder PT-4Ks like this one do not come up for sale very often and when they do, fetch between £30 and £50, depending on the condition. Boxed examples are super rare, though and the last one I saw, a couple of years ago, sold for over £100, so keep your eyes peeled! 


GIZMO GUIDE

First seen         1965

Original Price   £15?

Value Today     £30  (1014)

Features           Single motor capstan drive, 1/2 track mono, dual speed (1.7/8 & 1.3/4 ips, using capstan sleeve adaptor), separate record/playback & magnetic erase heads, 6 transistors, battery/level meter, 3.5mm jacks for remote pause, earphone/ext speaker/microphone, DC power, push button controls (Stop, Play Record, slide rewind) 60mm speaker, 6mm (1/4in) wide tape, max reel size 82mm(3.25 in), folding carry handle/stand

Power req.                     5 x 1.5v AA cells

Dimensions:                   200 x 100 x 55mm 

Weight:                          1.3kg

Made (assembled) in:    Japan

Hen's Teeth (10 rarest):  7


Sony TC-50 Cassette Recorder, 1968

In flight entertainment takes on a whole new meaning with this unassuming Sony cassette tape recorder. Itís the TC-50, and you can judge how important it is from the fact that it has been exhibited in some of the worldís most prestigious museums, including the US National Air and Space Museum, and the Science Museum in London. In flight entertainment, in this context, is a tad more ambitious than those the (mostly) awful long-haul seatback offerings, itís to the Moon and back as this was the cassette recorder of choice for NASAís Apollo programme.

 

What makes this cassette recorder even more unusual is the fact that the machines that went into space were essentially the same as the ones you could buy over the counter. Normally the ancillary equipment that goes up in rockets either has to be specially designed or heavily modified in order to be Ďqualifiedí for use in space vehicles. According to NASA documents (Handbook of Pilot Operational Equipment for Manned Space Flight), the only changes made to the stock TC-50 was the addition of a metal label on the cassette compartment door, with some simple operating instructions, and the jacks for the remote control, microphone, monitor and external power input were covered in sticky tape, as they wouldnít be needed during flight operations.

 

The TC-50 was one of the earliest of Sonyís portable cassette recorders that led eventually to the revolutionary and iconic Walkman personal stereo player. However, in 1968, when it first appeared, entertainment probably wasnít high on the list of intended applications; basically it was a pocket-able dictating machine, and NASA doubtless meant it to be used for note taking but the astronauts found it useful for playing their mix tapes to while away the hours of their long journey. In the photo thatís Lunar Module pilot Eugene Cernan holding a TC-50, alongside Command Module pilot John W. Young on board Apollo 10 in May 1969).

 

NASAís decision to use this machine is not difficult to understand; it is superbly well made -- by then Sonyís reputation for design and engineering was well established. The large, simple controls made it easy to use, clearly an important consideration if you happened to be wearing a cumbersome space suit and gloves, but above all, it was tough and reliable, again a major plus point for space voyagers as Sony Service centres are a bit thin on the ground, once you leave Earth orbit.

 

Speaking of controls, there are only three of them, for the transport functions. The large shiny-topped sliding lever selects Stop and Forward modes; to record press the red button before sliding the lever and pressing the small black button in Stop mode engages Rewind, or Fast Forward in Play mode. The only other control is a volume thumbwheel, mounted just above the tape compartment flap. The microphone is built into the front of the case, thereís a 50mm speaker on the backside and on the top there is a tiny round meter showing battery condition and recording level, not that you could do much about is as it is controlled automatically.

 

There are a few points of interest inside the case and first off is the D-201 motor, in its own way a minor technical marvel, and famed for its speed stability and reliability. You can just make it out in the photo and unusually it is angled at around 45 degrees to the case. Whether this was deliberate, or forced upon the designers by the confines of the case has never been explained but the result was that it in this orientation it was less prone to wow and flutter, if the machine was rapidly moved or shaken. Sadly history doesn't tell us if this was an advantage in zero gravity. The circuit board is densely packed; I recall read somewhere that it uses integrated circuits. They were certainly around in the late 60s but it would have been very unusual to see them in consumer products like this. Maybe they were used on later versions but this one at least has only discrete components. Fortunately it is in good working order as thanks to the complex wiring loom and watch-like construction, repairing one would be a nightmare!

 

Power is supplied by a proprietary NiCad re-chargeable battery pack (BP10) and the one that came with this specimen would have expired decades ago but for once it is not a problem. Inside the pack, which opens easily, there is a compartment for three AA sided cells and itís a simple matter to pop in a set of modern replacements. I suspect that a purpose-made AA adaptor was either supplied or offered as an optional extra. It comes with a mains charger adapter and Sony showed considerable foresight by fitting it with a voltage selector switch (100/110-120/220-240V), so that it could be used anywhere in the world; at the time mains adaptors tended to be made for the country Ė and mains supply -- where the product was originally sold.

 

All things considered, and after almost half a century, performance is pretty good and although it was designed primarily for voice recording, it has a decent enough stab at reproducing music; it is certainly good enough for use in spacecraft, which are probably not the most acoustically-friendly of environments  

 

I have been trying to fill the TC-50 sized gap in my collection for some time and have, until recently, been put off by the usually ridiculously high prices being asked (and paid) for them. Most of the worldís supply of this model appear to be in the US and ebay sellers tend to shamelessly capitalise on the Apollo connection but a few made it to Europe, and somehow this one ended up in Belgium and eventually on ebay, where I bought it, with no competing bids, for the amazingly low price of 20 euros. It came with the original NiCad battery pack, leather carry case and mains charger and all of them were in excellent condition. It worked straight away but as a precaution the drive belt was checked and key moving parts treated to a spot of light grease.

 

What Happened To It?

There is a short history of the TC line of recorders in the TC-55 write up further down the page and the gist of it is that it was part of the evolutionary process that resulted in the TPS-L2, the first Walkman, and the birth of the personal stereo revolution. Its role in the Apollo program and later space missions has been largely unsung, and surprisingly it wasnít something that Sony capitalised upon, though this may have been a contractual obligation but it has definitely earned its place in museums, and the history of the cassette recorder.

 

Prices vary widely and even in poor condition they can make your eyes water. I have seen absolute wrecks selling for as much as £50, though runners in fair condition usually go for between £50 and £100 and really clean and boxed examples can make £200 or more. There is no disputing the fact that is a historically significant machine but a fair number were made, a lot have have survived and as this one proves there are still some bargains around, but be warned, as time goes by they are becoming much harder to find.


GIZMO GUIDE

First seen         1968

Original Price   £50?

Value Today     £50Ė£200 (1014)

Features           Mono two-track recording, built in microphone and 50mm speaker, battery state & recording level meter, Play/Record, FF/Rew functions, volume control. Sockets: external remote pause (2.5mm jack), external microphone and headphone/monitor (3.5mm jack), external DC supply. Accessories: wrist lanyard, leather case, battery pack, mains adaptor/charger

Power req.                     4.5 volts DC, (BP-10 battery pack containing 3 x AA NiCad cells)

Dimensions:                   140 x 90 x 37mm 

Weight:                          600g

Made (assembled) in:    Japan

Hen's Teeth (10 rarest):  7


Amerex Alpha One Tape Miniature Recorder, 1971

In the small, strange and mildly obsessive world of vintage Spycorder collecting the Amerex Alpha One is one of the all-time classics, and a genuine rarity. It is tiny, a little larger than a compact cassette library case, but that is not what makes it special; itís the quality and precision of the engineering and materials, which has been justly compared with iconic Swiss-made Nagra sub-miniature and professional reel-to-reel machines.

 

It dates from the early 1970s, at the height of the Cold War, and was made in Japan, by Amerex Electronics, for a US outfit called Identcorporation, based in New York, and thatís about all I can say for certain about its origins. Both Identcorporation and Amerex Electronics in Japan seem to have vanished without trace giving some credence to stories that it was either developed for or designed by the FBI or US Security Services. It seems improbable, but true or not, it only adds to the air of mystery surrounding this brilliant little machine. 

 

The technology is pretty straightforward; the tape is housed in a custom cassette, spooled with the same 3.8mm (1/8th inch) wide tape used in Compact Cassettes. It runs at the standard 4.76 cm/sec (1 7/8 ips), giving each cassette approximately 2 hours recording time (60 mins per side). It has a simple single motor capstan drive mechanism with electronic speed control. The tape deck controls have been pared to the absolute minimum, presumably to save space and weight and maintain reliability. Thereís really only two transport controls, a power switch for the motor, and a hinged lever in front of the single tape head, (this also houses the capstan roller, two tape guide and a felt pressure pad). Operating mode is determined by which accessory is plugged into the multi-way socket on the right hand side. For example, if one of the two microphones is connected it will be in record mode, and if the earphones are plugged in, itís in playback mode. Moving the lever assembly sets tape speed and direction; fully in for Play or record, one notch out is neutral and when moved to the second notch, the tape rewinds. The small slide switch to the rear of the deck mechanism is for voice operated (VOX) recording control and it only records when the microphones pick up sounds, which greatly extends recording time and battery life.

 

In common with the legendary Nagra SN construction is all-metal; the mechanics are solid as a rock and it looks and feels like a precision instrument, which it is. Power is supplied by a pair of 1.4 volt button cells; the larger one is for the motor the other is for the electronics, which are notable for using some of the earliest (and smallest) audio amplifier integrated circuits (ICs) available at the time.

 

I have been unable to find any record of the only chip with legible markings and it is possible that these were a custom design, developed specifically for this application.

 

Like all good spy kit it comes with its own lockable, custom-fitted flight case. This has foam cut-outs for three tape cassettes in the lid, and spaces in the base for the recorder, microphones (one plug-in and two body-worn), the purpose designed stereo earphones and slots for spare batteries. Q would have been proud to issue this to James Bond, though it has never Ė to my uncertain knowledge Ė ever featured in any movies or TV programmes. Maybe it was a well kept secret. It still is, to some extent, and there is very little information about the Alpha One on the web so I would be grateful if anyone can fill in the gaps. Incidentally, it bears a very strong resemblance to another tiny tape recorder, this time from a company called EDI, but I know even less about that model, so again, any info is welcome..

 

I had been aware of the Alpha One for some time but for the ten years or so I have been after one only a couple appeared on ebay and they always sold for eye-watering amounts. This one also looked like it was going to go the same way and my bank manager troubling bids were instantly beaten so I bowed out. It was a huge surprise, therefore, when ebay sent me an email a few days later mentioning that it had just been re-listed Ė probably due to a non-paying bidder -- with a very realistic buy it now price. From reading the email to clicking the BIN button took around 10 seconds! For the record it cost me £148, plus half as much again in shipping and customs charges, making it one of the most expensive tape recorders I have ever bought but I am fairly confident that I will never see another one for that price..

 

It is in near mint cosmetic condition but sadly it had a little problem. It was sold as a non-runner and a couple of loose wires in the battery compartment were swiftly and easily fixed. However, thereís a nasty  crack on one side of the motor support bracket that stops it applying the necessary pressure to the flywheel. On the plus side the audio circuitry is in very fine fettle and itís possible to intermittently get it into record and playback modes by poking and prodding the motor with a toothpick. 

 

UPDATE: eventually I got around to fabricating a new bracket. I began by taking some detailed measurements and several close up photos of the cracked piece. The replacement was made from a small chunk of aluminium, cut from a CPU heatsink. It involved a lot (and I mean a lot!) of filing, much swearing, and a great deal of trial and error; itís not quite as neat as the original but it works perfectly!

 

What Happened To It?

Without knowing anything about the history of Amerex Electronics and Identcorporation it is difficult to say but for all of its appeal, highly specialised, precision-made devices like this would have had a very small market, almost entirely confined to spooks, spies and private eyes. It must have cost a small fortune to make, and I can only take a wild stab in the dark at the original selling price.

 

Unfortunately its appearance, in the early 1970s, was just a few years after the launch of the Philips Minicassette, which resulted in lots of modestly-priced and well specified tape recorders, two thirds the size of the Alpha One. Full-size cassette recorders were also shrinking in size, with machines from the likes of Sony and Akai not much larger than the Alpha One. My guess is that any self-respecting spymaster with an eye on the expenses budget, would go for a cheaper off-the-shelf alternative, and lovely through it is, the Alpha One didn't stack up too well against the smaller and cheaper competition.

 

I cannot be certain how many of them were made but from the few serial numbers I have seen on machines owned by fellow collectors, and in photos on the web, I suspect it was no more than a few hundred. This makes it a very scarce commodity indeed, and probably not the sort of thing you are ever likely to stumble across at your local car boot or antique fair. If you do, needless to say, jump on it, fight for it if you have to because it is a truly wonderful little thing that makes rocking horse droppings look really common...!


GIZMO GUIDE

First seen         1971

Original Price   £300?

Value Today     £600? 0714

Features           4-track stereo recording, proprietary cassette, 3.8mm tape, 120 minutes recording time (60 mins per side), capstan drive tape transport, Play/Record, Rewind, Stop functions, Voice-Operated (VOX) function, proprietary

Power req.                    1 x RM-625 1.4v button cell, 1 x RM-822 1.4v button cell

Dimensions:                  130 x 73 x 25mm

Weight:                         270g

Made (assembled) in:    Japan

Hen's Teeth (10 rarest):  9


Sony TC-55 Cassette Recorder, 1972

The Sony Walkman TPS-L2, launched in 1979, earned itself a place in history, and is rightly regarded as one of the most iconic gadgets of all time, but it is also worth pointing out that it didnít materialise out of thin air. The first Walkman can trace its origins back to a range of compact portable machines from Sony in the late 60s. One of them, the TC-50, has itís own claim to fame, and was used by astronauts as music players and note takers on several Apollo Moon missions. This wasnít a specially tweaked model either, it was a bog-standard, off the shelf machine, which, at last, brings us to the TC-55. This was the sucessor to the TC-50 and it led, three years later, to the TCM-100 Pressman, which was the Sony cassette recorder on which the world's first Walkman was based. 

 

Okay, so itís a fairly tenuous series of connections and as far as I am aware the TC-55 doesnít have any historic associations of its own but it is still an interesting little machine and deserves at least a mention in the Technology Hall of Fame (as soon as someone gets around to creating one...).. Until that happens it will have to make do with a brief outing in Dustygizmos and weíll begin with the features that set this, and many other Sony products of the time, apart from the competition. Picking one up tells you everything that you need to know about the design, materials and build quality. Itís heavy and it feels exceptionally solid, and thatís because it is mostly made of metal and so fairly obvious why NASA chose this family of machines to go into space.

 

It packs an impressive amount of technology into a small space, including a compact, high precision motor driving twin flywheels and a complex pulley system to ensure very stable tape speed. Although it is a mono recorder, and designed primarily as a dictating machine it is more than capable of handling music. Legend has it that was a favourite with bootleggers who used them to make illicit and covert recordings at concerts. It would have been ideal, thereís even a dedicated music recording mode; it has a directional, high quality Electret condenser microphone, built-in speaker, frugal battery consumption and thereís even a tiny recording level meter, though this is largely superfluous as it has fully automatic recording level control. Thereís also one of the smallest tape counters you are ever likely to see, and all of the controls are easy to use one-handed.

 

Power comes from a detachable battery pack, filled with four AA cells; a rechargeable pack was also available as an optional extra. Connections to the outside world are handled by three 3.5mm jacks on the rear panel. They are for an external microphone, remote pause and monitor, or earphones; just above the jacks thereís a mounting point for the supplied wrist strap. Thereís also a socket for external power. The push-button transport keys are mounted on the top panel (Rec, FF/Cue, Fwd, Stop & Rew) and on the front thereĎs two sliding switches, for power on, Music/Speech record mode and a volume thumbwheel.       

 

I found this one around five years ago on ebay and as I recall it cost £10, or thereabouts. It was then and still is in excellent condition and full working order, which is a little unusual considering the complexity of the mechanics and the unfortunate habit of rubber drive belts to turn into a nasty black mush after a couple of decades. Given the lack of marks it seems likely that this one had led a fairly sedate life, spending most of it stored in cool dry conditions; either that or it had been recently serviced before it came into my posession, Sound quality is still pretty good for such an old machine, and although it lacks the noise cancelling refinements of later models, background hiss is well suppressed and heard through a decent pair of headphones you are hardly aware it is in mono.

 

What Happened To It?

The TC-55 was the last of the line for this particular model range but it certainly wasnít a dead end and the design elements and philosophy that paved the way for the revolutionary Walkman are clear to see. Of the three TC models (40, 50 and 55) the 50 is easily the most desirable, thanks to its lunar connections, and clean ones can sell for anything between £20 and £100. sometimes more when a couple of collectors get into a tussle. The TC-55 is overshadowed by its more illustrious stablemate; it doesnít have the same cachet and this is reflected in auction prices, which means there are bargains to be had. Good examples routinely sell for between £15 and £30, which is little enough to pay for such a well-built recorder from the early days of the cassette. If thereís a gap in your cassette recorder collection for an early space-age classic donít wait too long because they will become harder to find and prices will inevitably creep up.


GIZMO GUIDE

First seen                1972

Original Price         £50

Value Today           £20 0814

Features           Capstan drive mono recording, automatic level control, Music/Speech record modes, record/battery meter, built in microphone and speaker, 3-digit tape counter, auto stop, remote pause

Power req.                     4 x 1.5v AA cells

Dimensions:                   145 x 98 x 36mm

Weight:                          780g

Made (assembled) in:    Japan

Hen's Teeth (10 rarest):  6


Belwood, James Bond Spycorder, 1963

The opening sequence of Thunderball, where Bond James Bond escapes from the villains using a Bell Rocket Belt had a lasting effect on me and many of my generation and most us who saw it were convinced that one day we too would be flitting about the sky, strapped to personal jetpacks. Unlike many Bond gadgets this one actually existed at the time; it wasnít until a lot later that I learned that it only carried enough fuel for 30 seconds or so of flying time and after more than fifty years its modern counterparts are still only able to stay up for less than a minute. Thunderball was notable for another working, real-world gadget, though blink and you will have missed it as it was only on the screen for a few seconds, and most of it was concealed by the book it was hidden inside (see screengrab below).

 

It was the Bellwood Memo Corder, one of the smallest and rarest mini tape recorders from the early sixties. I can be fairly sure about the date as Thunderball was made in 1964 (released in 65), so it is safe to assume the Memo Corder had been around for a year or so before it came to the attention of the movieís props department. It is typical of tiny tape recorders of the time and little more than a toy. Thanks to the simple rim-drive mechanism audio quality is quite poor and it would only have been capable of recording a few minutes worth of speech. The movie took some liberties with this, suggesting that the little machine was able to record for long periods. In the scene where it appears Bond returns to his hotel room and the reels are still turning, having earlier recorded the sounds made by an intruder in the room. It was a good choice, though and it certainly looks the part of a serious Spycorder. Thereís a lot of shiny metalwork on show and it has a set of push-button controls, which was quite unusual for small, cheap machines of this period.

 

It has several other unusual features; these include the facility for remote pause (on record or playback) using a switch fitted to the microphone. Thereís a variable speed playback control, and on the underside a small hinged foot lifts the front of the machine. This is probably a kludge, designed increase the volume from the built-in loudspeaker, mounted on the underside of the case;  lying flat it is almost inaudible.

 

The rest of it is fairly conventional, though hats off to the designers for cramming so much into such a small space. The transport mechanism is slightly unusual in that it uses an idler wheel to Ďgear upí and drive the supply spool in rewind mode. The motor is mounted on a simple pivot that moves the spindle between the rubber rim of the take-up reel and the idler wheel. It has a single head for record/replay functions and a separate open head, with a small electromagnet, for erasing the tape whilst in record mode. The amplifier is a simple 4-transitor design (see above) and this drives the small 63mm speaker set into the bottom of the case.

 

This one, like quite a few of my titchy tape recorders, came from a seller in the US, via ebay, in the early noughties. At the time neither I, or the seller, had made the James Bond connection, and although I canít recall exactly how much I paid for it, it wouldnít have been much more than £5, plus another £6 or £7 for postage (shipping costs for small parcels from the US were quite reasonable back then). It was probably sold as non-working but in good cosmetic condition, and all it would have taken to get it going was a good clean up, a few drops of oil and if there was no sound, swapping out all of the electrolytic capacitors. Japanese made electrolytics made in the sixties had an unfortunate tendency to fail after only 10 -15 years.  It still runs quite nicely, though the volume isnít up to much so it will probably need a seeing-to at some point,otherwise itís a clean and still very good looking little machine.

 

What Happened To It?   

I suspect that its fleeting appearance in Thunderball didn't have any influence on sales. Over the years I have only seen a small handful of them on ebay, which suggests that either relatively few were made, or sold, or they didn't last very long. Like so many of its contemporaries, miniature reel to reel tape recorders of the early sixties had a fairly short shelf life and were all but killed off by the Philips compact cassette, shortly after it was launched in 1963.

 

I am not sure if this has become a sought-after model, but I have a feeling that it might well appeal to collectors of Bond movie ephemera, though its few seconds of glory on the sliver screen means that few will be aware of its existence, let alone the make and model. Well, they are now, so if you see one going cheap, I suggest that you keep quiet and grab it quick!


GIZMO GUIDE

First seen                      1963

Original Price                £?

Value Today                  £30 0514

Features:                       Rim drive transport mechanism, 2-track mono recording, variable speed replay, remote pause, 63mm (2.5-inch) reels, 55mm speaker, push button controls (Record, Rewind, Play, Stop), external microphone, earphone and remote pause 3.5mm jacks, permanent magnet erase, hinged stand      

Power req.                     2 x 1.5volt AA cells, 1 x 9volt PP3

Dimensions:                   140 x 100 x 48mm

Weight:                          510g

Made (assembled) in:    Japan

Hen's Teeth (10 rarest):  8


Concord F20 Sound Camera Mission Impossible, 1965

The must-have video box set for fans of miniature reel-to-reel tape recorders, and there are at least five of us, is the original Mission Impossible TV series, broadcast between 1966 and 1973. Almost every episode began with Mr Phelps, played by Peter Graves, receiving his orders on a tiny tape recorder, with the legendary line Ďthis tape will self destruct in five secondsí, followed by a puff of smoke. There was a different model almost every week but this one, the Concord F20 Sound Camera has the distinction of appearing several times, for no particular reason that I can see, other than it is small and very photogenic. It has definitely earned a place in the TV & Movie Spycorder Hall of Fame, which I must get around to setting up, one day.

 

To business, and the F20 is yet another compact rim-drive machine from the early to mid-60s. On the miniature tape recorder hierarchy it lies somewhere between a toy and a budget dictating machine, though a lot of them were probably bought for sending and receiving short Ďsound lettersí. The 2.5-inch reels it used were small enough to send through the post and contained enough tape for around 20 to 30 minutes of chat. The basic rim-drive tape transport is not steady enough for music, and there is always the problem of tape speed variation when tapes are played back on different makes or models of tape recorder.

 

The Sound Camera name probably stems from the fact that it is really quick and easy to use, making it idea for taking audio snapshots, of bird song, steam trains, the crashing of waves, and yes, life really was that dull in the olden days. Aside from its small size it has few notable features; thereís a variable speed control, the microphone has a remote pause switch, it has a built-in loudspeaker and instead of the usual permanent magnet tape erase, this function is built into the record/playback head. In common with most other rim drive machines the tape transport options are limited to Play/Record and Rewind Ė there is no fast forward -- the record/playback amplifier circuit uses four germanium transistors and it is powered by four 1.5 volt AA cells, which live in a compartment on the back. It comes with a microphone, wrist strap and a carry case.

 

This is one of several F20ís I have acquired over the years, most of them from ebay, and at the time Ė early noughties Ė rarely cost more than £5 - £10. Most of them were sold as faulty or non-runners but this was almost always due to a combination of gunky grease seizing up the reels hubs and motor, and dud electrolytic capacitors in the amplifier circuit. Nine times out of ten a clean up, oil change and cap swap would have them running again, usually as good as new. Audio quality on this one is satisfactory for speech and the small speaker is surprisingly loud (and very tinnyÖ).

 

What Happened To It?

Itís the same old story and small reel-to-reel tape recorders like this one were doomed from the day Philips introduced the Compact Cassette, back in 1963. By the late sixties they had virtually disappeared, beaten on just about every level by the cassette. In fact the only thing machines like this had going for them was cuteness and eye appeal, and the spinning reels are highly visual, perfect for TV and the movies, though even Mission Impossible used cassette machines in the later episodesÖ

 

I cannot be sure how long the Sound Camera was in production, I am guessing it was only around 3 or 4 years from 1965 or thereabouts. A fair number of them must have been made and they still turn up on ebay, though they are becoming less frequent as the years go by. A decent boxed machine with all of its accessories can go for £50, occasionally a lot more, especially if a couple of determined collectors or crazed Mission Impossible fans are after one.


GIZMO GUIDE (Manual)

First seen                 1965

Original Price        £8.00

Value Today           £30 0514

Features                 Rim drive mechanism. 2-track recording, variable speed, volume, microphone/remote pause, earphone 3.5mm jack sockets, 55mm speaker, carry strap, carry case, max reel size: 63mm (2.5-in)

Power req.                       4 x 1.5v AA cells

Dimensions:                     165 x 115 x 58mm

Weight:                            800g

Made (assembled) in:     Japan

Hen's Teeth (10 rarest):  7


Protona Minifon Attachť, 1961

Credit for making the first electronic covert audio recording device almost certainly belongs to a German company called Protona, who in the early 1950s developed a tiny pocket size magnetic wire spycorder, aptly named the Minifon Mi51. The simple, robust mechanism, and its ability record for up to four hours was, allegedly, the inspiration for, and partly used in the construction of the first prototype aircraft ĎBlack Boxí flight data recorder in 1957, devised by Australian Dr David Warren.

 

Looking at the Minifon Attachť, featured here, it is not difficult to understand what drew Dr Warren to Protona; the design, engineering, build quality and attention to detail of this cute little tape recorder is simply outstanding. It is hard to believe that it was conceived in the late 50s and is now well over half a century old, whatís more it uses a small, conveniently sized tape cassette that pre-dates the Philips Compact Cassette by several years. It also has several clever and innovative features that would not become widespread on tape recorders and electronic gadgets for another decade.

 

Realistically the Minifon Attachť is an item of office equipment, however it is incredibly small -- it fits easily into a coat pocket -- and like the Mi51 before it, probably did its fair share of surveillance recording. It could also be used to record telephone conversations, thanks to a pickup coil built in to one of the optional multi-purpose external speaker microphone modules, which sadly I do not have Ė mine is the standard model. The two-sided tape cassette has a number of similarities to the Philips Compact Cassette. It is only a little larger, and slightly thicker, mainly due to the fact that it uses 6mm (1/4-inch) wide tape, rather the 3.5mm (1/8th inch) wide tape in a standard cassette. Like Philips machines it uses a capstan drive tape mechanism, cassettes were available in different lengths (30 and 15 minutes per side). Who knows; it is not unreasonable to suppose that Philips engineers were aware of the Protona design and maybe, like Dr Warren, drew some inspiration from it?

 

Other features were well ahead of their time, like the all transistor circuitry. This put it at the cutting edge in the early 60s. Piano key controls were also quite novel, especially on a machine this small, and tape counters and moving coil recoding level/battery meters were comparatively rare on portable machines. Then there are some rather unusual extras, like fast erase. When pressed, a small lever at one end of he tape head cover brings a permanent magnet into contact with the tape and when the machine is in rewind mode it is possible to completely wipe both sides of a cassette in just a couple of minutes. Last but not least, it can be powered by a 12-volt nicad rechargeable battery, or a now obsolete disposable battery. Sixty years ago you could count the number of electronic devices that used rechargeable batteries on the fingers of one hand.      

 

Construction is all metal, from the chassis to the case, and thereís a hefty cylindrical flywheel, to aid speed stability, yet it is surprisingly light. It looks and feels really tough, and the fact that after all these years this one still works perfectly, is a tribute to German precision engineering.

 

I cannot recall exactly when I acquired this particular Attachť, it is a fairly early example and one of several that have passed through my hands over the years, but it was probably more then ten years ago, and came from an early on-line auction when machines like these were cheap and plentiful. Then as now it is in full working order and showed only light signs of use. It came with its custom-made leather case and the purpose designed microphone/speaker, and I would be very surprised if I paid more than £10 for it. 

 

What Happened To It?

As far as I am aware Protona never attempted to turn the Attachť into a mass-market product and its successor, the better specified Hi-Fi model was also aimed, and priced at high end and specialist applications. Needless to say not many were sold and it couldnít compete with the Philips Compact Cassette, which by the mid 60s had become a world standard. In fact Protona had been struggling for years and it was bought out by Telefunken in 1962. Despite dwindling orders Protona continued to make Minifon models until 1967, when it was eventually closed down.

 

Protona Minifons are not widely known outside of the tape recorder collector and enthusiast markets but the few that come up on ebay are eagerly snapped up, sometimes for hundreds of pounds, depending on their condition and rarity. However, occasional fixer-uppers can still be found for £50 or less, and providing there is no serious damage or corrosion, they can be a good investment. They are fairly easy to work on, a lot of parts are still available and most faults can be fixed, but even dead ones still look great!


GIZMO GUIDE

First seen               1959

Original Price         £300?

Value Today           £50 0414

Features                 Capstan drive, 2-track recording, ľ-inch tape, 6 transistors (3 x OC304, 2 x OC308 1 x OC307), tape counter, battery/recording level meter, auto stop, remote pause/record, piano-key controls, stop, rewind, play, record), volume, full tape erase

Power req.                    Mini Accu 12-volt nicad rechargeable battery/Petrix 27

Dimensions:                  180 x 102 x 44mm

Weight:                          850g

Made (assembled) in:    Germany

Hen's Teeth (10 rarest):  7


Channel Master 6546 Cartridge Tape Recorder, 1963

Audio tape recorders using fiddle-free cartridges and cassettes have been around for a lot longer than many people suppose and the earliest examples date back to the 1950s, but the 1960s was the golden age, with scores of different types and formats being developed. Only a handful lasted more than a couple of years in the consumer market, the notable exceptions being the Compact Cassette and the 8-track Cartridge. Several others came close to success, though, and for a while the Sanyo Micro Pack was a strong contender for the dictation/memo recorder market, with machines sold under a variety of brand names, including Channel Master, Lodestar (Tape Reporter) and Westinghouse.

 

Micro Pack cartridges are an elegantly simple design with two 60mm (2 3/8-inch) reels housed inside a clear plastic case. Unlike the familiar Compact cassette, where the reels are arranged side by side, the Micro Pack uses a ĎTandemí arrangement with the spools stacked on top on each other. The cartridge contains around 76 metres (250 feet) of 6.5mm (1/4-inch) wide tape, which passes diagonally from one reel to the other. It is incredibly easy to use, there is no need to worry about lacing the tape, just pop the cartridge into the recorder and it is ready for recording or playback on the first track and when it reaches the end either rewind and start again, or flip the cartridge over to use the second track on the other side. Recording/playback time would typically be between 20 and 30 minutes per side.

 

Showing here is the Channel Master 6546 made in Japan by Sanyo, who sold the same model under its own name as the M-35. When you pick one up for the first time the first things you notice are the small size, it fits easily into a coat pocket, how heavy it is Ė the case and chassis are all metal Ė and build quality and finish, which are comparable with decent cameras of the day. All in all it looks like a precision instrument, though in actuality it is fairly basic and only one small step removed from the multitude of cheap toy recorders sold throughout the early sixties. Basically it is let down by the tape transport system, which uses a simple rim-drive mechanism.

 

The spools are driven directly by the spindle of a small motor, which presses against the reelís rubber-coated rims. The main problems with this method are slippage and the speed at which the tape passes the tape head, which varies as one reel empties and the other fills up. It doesnít matter too much for speech, voice memos, audio letters and so on, but it pretty much rules it out for recording music. To be fair rim drive is more of a problem on open reel tape recorders and recordings will normally only play back at close to the correct speed on the machine the recording was made. The saving grace in this instance is the fact that Micro Pack cartridges can only be replayed on other Micro Pack machines, all of them made by Sanyo, so there are no serious compatibility issues. Nevertheless, Sanyo felt it necessary to give these machines a manual speed control, to compensate for the inevitable minor variations. It is interesting to speculate what would have happened if the Micro Pack format been designed for a constant-speed capstan drive mechanism; the history of audio recording might have been rather different.

 

All of the controls are on the top panel. A chromium-plated switch handles transport functions with a flip up finger tab. This tilts the motor so that the spindle comes into contact with the take-up reel (Play and Record) or feed-reel (Rewind). Lifting the switch and twisting it past a detent selects record mode; thereís a simple pause function, controlled by a button to the left of the transport knob. The transport switch also engages a pin that fits into a hole on the side of the cartridge, which prevents its removal whilst the tape is moving. On the far left side of the top panel thereís a tiny moving coil meter, which shows battery condition and recording level and on the right side there are rotary controls for volume and speed. Jack sockets on the side are for the microphone (with a remote pause switch) and an earphone, and on the back of the case is a two-pin socket for an optional charger/DC supply. Power on the go is supplied by four 1.5-volt AA cells, which fit into two compartments behind an L-shaped cover on the right side of the case. 

 

What Happened To It?

I havenít managed to determine exactly when this machine and its various clones first appeared, and eventually disappeared, but my guess is that it was between 1963 and 1968, give or take a year either side, judging by the components used in the four-transistor amplifier. These machines appear to have been moderately successful and thanks to the sturdy all metal construction and build quality a fair few of them are still around today but their relatively short time on the market coincided with the rise, and eventual domination of the Philips Compact Cassette. This almost certainly killed off any hopes Sanyo may have had for the Micro Pack format. In any event it would probably only ever have had a short shelf life, thanks to the indifferent performance of the rim drive mechanism and the cartridgeís limited tape capacity.

 

Over the years several of these machines have passed through my hands. They were all acquired from American sellers on ebay and usually only cost a few pounds; this was back in the days when there was little or no interest in miniature tape recorders, and US postal charges were a fraction of what they are now. I still have a pair of Sanyo and Channel Master models. The latter is complete with its original leather carry case, remote control microphone and pouch. Both machines are in excellent cosmetic condition, good working order and still capable of recording, and playing back intelligible speech at a respectable volume levels. I was also lucky enough to snag a small collection of Micro Pack cartridges; three of them are unused, in mint condition and still in their original Ďaudio letterí mailing boxes.

 

You can still find Micro Pack recorders on ebay but the prices have risen somewhat and the last one I saw sold for more than £50, and it wasnít even in working condition. Of course it is still worth keeping an eye out for them, and the occasional miss-spelt, or wrongly categorised example slips under the radar and sells for silly money but they are few and far between. Cartridges are even rarer but as always, if you donít look you wonít find. 


GIZMO GUIDE

First seen                      1963

Original Price                £25?

Value Today                  £45  1213

Features                        2-track mono recording, Sanyo Micro Pack tandem reel cartridge (0.25-in tape) rim-drive mechanism, separate record & erase heads, variable speed control, 4 transistor amplifier, Play, Stop, Record & Rew transport modes, battery/level meter, 3.5mm Jack sockets for microphone, earphone, remote pause, 2-pin DC power/charger, leather carry case

Power req.                     4 x 1.5v AA cell

Dimensions:                   162 x 92 x 34mm (Micro Pack 35 cartridge 66 x 73 x 28mm)

Weight:                          800g (cartridge 78.5g)

Made (assembled) in:    Japan

Hen's Teeth (10 rarest):  8


Memo Call Pocket Dictating Machine, 1964

Of all the audio tape formats developed between the 1950s and late 1990s, and there were scores, if not hundreds of them, the Micro Magazine tape cartridge has to be one of the most obscure and short-lived. As far as I can make out Ė and as usual I am only too happy to be corrected Ė it was only ever used on one machine Ė the Memo Call Ė and the only references to it I have been able to find are between 1964 and 1965, after which it disappears without trace.

 

It is normally fairly obvious why a product or technology fails to succeed and generally involves a combination of factors, such as being rubbish at what it does, too expensive, poorly designed, unreliable, clumsily marketed and so on. Some of those clearly apply to the Memo Call, but it would be unfair to put it down to reliability, at least not in this case as it still works. That in itself is not unusual; 1960ís electronic gadgets were often quite well made. However, the real surprise is how on earth this particular Micro Magazine tape cartridge managed to survive for so long as it uses one of the most idiosyncratic tape mechanisms ever devised.

 

Instead of the customary twin spool arrangement this has only one reel containing a continuous loop of 3.5mm (1/8th inch) wide tape. It is drawn, or rather dragged, from the centre of the spool, it then passes out through a slot in the side of the cartridge, over a rubber idler wheel, then back into the case and wound back on to the outer edge of the reel. You would think that all of the twists, turns and stretching would quickly wear it out, but no, magnetic tape was obviously made of sterner stuff back then and it still records and plays back without any problems whatsoever. Whilst the system is technically quite clever and obviously good at defying the ravages of time it has one very serious limitation. There is only enough tape for around 4 minutes worth of recording. That, in a nutshell, is probably the single biggest reason for its short life; 4 minutes is not enough for it to qualify as a dictating machine, and only barely adequate for taking brief audio notes.

 

The Micro Magazine cartridge slips into a compartment in the front of the Memo Call, as it locks into place the tape comes into contact with the separate erase and record/replay heads and the belt driven capstan, sandwiching it against the rubber idler when, which pulls the tape through the cartridge. The capstan drive mechanism assures speed stability, and the simplicity of the design means that there is very little to go wrong. There are only two transport controls, a pair of buttons on the front of the case, mounted on a rocker that switch between record and replay mode. If you are wondering where there are no fast forward or rewind functions thatís because theyíre hardly necessary. With only 4 minutes recording time you donít have to wait very long to hear what youíve just recorded. It also means that over-recording is a serious risk, if youíre not keeping tabs on the timeÖ The only other control is a volume thumbwheel and thereís a jack socket on the side for an external microphone or earphone. The simple amplifier circuit is a conventional design and uses four germanium transistors (2SB117s). Normally I expect to have to change the self-destructive electrolytic capacitors on 60ís circuit boards but these are still in good condition so for the moment Iím leaving well alone.

 

I canít remember exactly how I came by this machine but it was probably ebay and would have been more than ten years ago. In those days I rarely, if ever, spent more than £10.00 on a miniature tape recorder. It was a runner from the start and apart from an occasional health check and to keep the deck mechanism and electronics running smoothly, it has required virtually no attention. Aside from a few very minor marks it looks and sounds almost as good as the day it was made. Speaking of which, sound quality, whilst fairly crude by todayís standard is perfectly adequate for speech, and thereís plenty of volume.

 

What Happened To It?

The Memo Call was doomed from the moment it appeared. Even if you ignore the paltry recording time it arrived in the shops at around the same time as first Philips Compact Cassette machines, and would have struggled to compete in a market already well supplied with pocket dictating machines that ran for a good deal longer than 4 minutes. A pocket note taker may have had some novelty value, but the selling price of twelve pounds ten shillings (£12.50) was a fair amount back then, and the formatís lack of support from other manufacturers, and the weird cartridge design undoubtedly contributed to its swift demise.    

 

Over the years I donít think I have seen more than a couple of Memo Calls on ebay and I foolishly let both of them go for just a few pounds. By rights its comparative rarity should make it quite valuable but very few nut cases, like me, would know or care, and there are simply too few of them on the market to set a benchmark so basically itís worth what anyone is prepared to pay for one, hence my fairly conservative estimate of £30.00, but one day, who knows?


GIZMO GUIDE

First seen                      1964

Original Price                £12.10.0 (£12.50)

Value Today                  £30? 1013

Features                        Micro Magazine continuous loop tape cartridge (approx 4.5min duration), capstan drive, record & playback modes, volume control, internal 55mm speaker, external earphone/mic 3.5mm jack, 4 transistor amplifier ( 4 x 2SB117)

Power req.                     4 x 1.5v AA cells, 1 x 9v PP3

Dimensions:                   145 x 78 x 42mm, (Micro Magazine 64 x 64 x 10mm)

Weight:                          400g (Micro Magazine 23.6g)

Made (assembled) in:    Japan

Hen's Teeth (10 rarest):  8


Stuzzi 304B Memocorder, 1964

Although not specifically designed for secret agents and espionage the Austrian made Stuzzi 304B really looks the part. It is certainly small enough and over the years this model has made several fleeting guest appearances in spy movies (Iím fairly sure it featured in at least one Bond film) and TV series. Even the name conjures up images of cold war era state security agencies. The truth is a little more mundane and it is actually a pocket dictating machine, dating from the early sixties, though who is to say 304s havenít been used for the odd spot of covert surveillance?

 

It is a clever design, with an impressive specification for such a small machine that is not much larger than a pack of cigarettes. The recording time is around one hour, which seems unlikely given that it uses tiny 42mm diameter reels. In fact the reels only hold enough tape for around 15 minutes recording time, but the record/replay and electromagnetic erase heads are mounted on a sliding pillar. This is coupled to a small lever on the side that lifts and locks the head into four preset vertical positions a couple of millimetres apart. This has the effect of dividing the tape into four parallel tracks. Moving the lever also engages the drive mechanism and reverses the direction of the tape and with some deft finger work a recording can be more or less continuous.

 

There is no tape counter, which is unusual as they are near standard fitments on dictating machines and vital for quickly finding a recording or passage. Stuzziís elegantly simple solution was to print a series of numbers on the tape, which can be viewed through a small window immediately above the track selection lever. Thereís more space saving ingenuity and a small speaker on the back panel doubles up as a microphone. It has a speed control slider, to compensate for the somewhat variable stability of the rim-drive transport mechanism and thereís a clever locking arrangement on the record button, so it can make short on-the-hoof recordings, or left running continuously. A single 1.5-volt AA cell powers the motor and the three-transistor amplifier circuit uses a 9-volt PP3 battery, both of which fit in snugly into a compartment in the front panel. Normally the busy looking head mechanism remains out of sight, protected by a screw-fit cover. A small area around each reel is left visible so the user can see the reels turning and get timely warning of the tape running out.   

 

What Happened To It?

Victor Stuzzi set up his radio repair business in Vienna in 1946 and produced the first of a long line of smart-looking portable reel-to-reel tape recorders in the early fifties. Compact voice ĎMemocordersí followed towards then end of the decade and became one of the companyís main product lines until its closure in 1996, following the death of Stuzzi in a plane crash. As far as I am aware the 304 was the first and only Memocorder to use open reel tapes and the models that followed used a proprietary cassette that could be used in both hand-held recorders and desktop transcribers.

 

Up until the late 1960s there were dozens of different types of pocket dictating machines on the market then, in 1967 Philips bought out the PM85 Pocket Memo which was the first to use the ground breaking Minicassette tape cassette. That was pretty much the end of the line for all of the proprietary tape and cassette formats; one or two managed to survive into the seventies but by then the Minicassette had become a worldwide standard and it almost certainly contributed to the slow decline of manufacturers like Stuzzi.

 

Normally I can remember where and when I came by the more interesting tape recorders in my collection but I have had this one for a good few years. It almost certainly pre-dates ebay so it was probably an antique fair or flea market find. I canít recall how much I paid for it either but back then I rarely spent more than £5.00 to £10.00, and the condition of this one isnít that great. There are a few small cracks in the removable back panel, and where a label plate should be thereís some nasty looking glue marks. Otherwise it is complete, and it works, or at least, it records and plays back noises; it could definitely do with a little TLC. I havenít seen any 304s on ebay for a while; the last one I spotted fetched an impressive £120, thanks to a couple of determined bidders but I feel £50  to £60 would be nearer the mark for a tidy one in good working order   


GIZMO GUIDE

First seen                       1963

Original Price                 £?

Value Today                   £50 0813

Features                         4-track recording system, magnetic erase head, built-in speaker/mic, 3-transistors (1 x OC72, 2 x OC75) 0.25-inch tape, 42mm reels, (4 x 15 min duration), external earphone & remote pause

Power req.                     1 x 1.5v AA, 1 x 9v PP3

Dimensions:                   117 x 80 x 45mm

Weight:                          270g

Made in:                        Austria

Hen's Teeth (10 rarest):  8


Juliette LT-44 Mini Tape Recorder, 1964?

Every so often, when examples of this little tape recorder turn up on ebay it is interesting to read the descriptions as they sometimes get the kind of write up normally reserved for high-end audio equipment. To the casual observer it certainly looks the part, with its compact shiny case and fancy control knob but in reality it is little more than a toy. Speed stability is non-existent, thanks to a crude rim-drive tape transport mechanism and it only records (mono half tracks) for between 5 and 10 minutes per side, but thereís no getting away from it, it looks like a serious piece of kit!

 

The Juiliette LT-44 was one of scores and possibly hundreds of little rim-drive machines coming out of Japan in the 1960s and they were mostly aimed at youngsters, so itís not surprising the cosmetics often mirror more grown up tape recorders. This one went a little bit further and instead of the more common plastic housing, it has a tough, heavily chrome-plated, all-metal case, complete with hinged carry handle. Itís pretty much metal throughout, on the inside too, with the simple transport mechanism centred on a single control knob that pivots the centrally mounted motor. This is arranged so that the spindle comes into contact with one or the other rubber rimmed reel platters. The motor spindle is stepped so that the thinner tip only touches the narrow-rimmed take up reel whilst a thicker lower section presses against the wider feed reel, giving a faster rewind speed.

 

For the record the basic problem with all rim drive mechanisms is the lack of speed stability. In fact the speed at which the tape passes the tape head varies continuously as one reel empties and the other fills up. Itís not a huge issue for recording speech and hardly noticeable when playing recordings made on the same machine, but a tape is played on another machine the speed will be all over the place. The low quality, speed variation and limited capacity also means its not much use for recording music, but that didnít matter. The point was, this and machines like it were proper tape recorders and itís difficult now to describe how, back in the early 1960s, being able to record and play back your own voice was a near magical experience.

 

What Happened To It?

This was a fairly popular design and it appeared under at least three different names and model numbers but thereís no indication of who made it. Theyíre probably long gone, or were taken over by other companies decades ago but the instructions do mention the US Importers, Topp, who once traded from 49 West 23rd Street in New York, currently home to a dentist and Pilates studio. Cute little rim drive machines like this one were popular, and common throughout the sixties, though by around 1968 Compact Cassette recorders were rapidly coming down in price and starting to have a real impact across the market 

 

Iíve had this particular one for around 10 years, bought on ebay, from a US seller, when they could still be had for a few pounds; often less than the cost of the shipping. It is complete, with the original box, packing, instruction sheet, warranty and the all-important crystal lapel microphone and earphone, both with their plastic carry cases. As I recall all it needed was a wipe-over. As you can see the casework is pristine, not a mark on it, inside or out, which suggests that it spent most of its life in its box, unused. Normally I replace the electrolytic capacitors on the circuit board but these were still okay. They will fail eventually but for the moment it has the rare distinction of being one hundred percent original, and in full working order. I doubt that there are very many mint examples out there but such is the build quality of this model that the ones that do end up on ebay are often in pretty good shape. If you are looking for a bargain you may need to be patient, though, especially if the seller is being overly ambitious with the specificationÖ  


GIZMO GUIDE (Manual)

First seen                      1964

Original Price                £5.00

Value Today                  £25 0413

Features                        Half track 75mm (3-inch) reel to reel, rim-drive mechanism, permanent magnet erase, built-in 58mm speaker, play, record, rewind & stop functions, rotary volume, mono microphone and ear 3.5mm jack sockets, carry handle, crystal lapel microphone, 5 minutes run time

Power req.                     2 x 1.5 volt C cells, 1 x 9v PP3

Dimensions:                   190 x 95 x 62mm

Weight:                          1kg

Made in:                        Japan

Hen's Teeth (10 rarest):  7


Nagra SN Minature Tape Recorder, 1973

It was designed for the US Secret Service in the early sixties and remained a closely guarded secret for several years. It travelled to the Moon and back, several times, eavesdropped on spies, villains and probably quite a few heads of state, helped to record countless movie and TV soundtracks and even made guest appearances in a fair number of them. Thatís just a few of the highlights from the long and impressive CV of one of the worldís most iconic tape recorders. Itís the Nagra SN, smaller than a paperback book and built like a fine Swiss watch, which is not too surprising as the manufacturers, Nagra Kudelski are based in Switzerland.

 

Legend has it that the SN or Sťrie Noire (Black Series) was commissioned by President Kennedy for use by the American Intelligence services and the CIA, though apparently it was popular with both sides during the Cold War years, and it is not hard to see why. It really is tiny, easily concealed, slipped into a pocket, worn under clothing or Ė as the movies would have us believe -- taped to a snitchís body. Remember, this was before bugs or Ďwiresí (radio microphones) were small, light or reliable enough to be used for covert applications. It was perfect for the job, at the slowest tape speed it could record uninterrupted for almost an hour and a half, and a pair of AA cells would keep it running for more than 5 hours.

 

Throughout much of the 1960s its existence was largely unknown outside of the intelligence and law enforcement communities but then it came to the attention of the TV and movie industry. The same qualities that made it so useful to spies and cops made it ideal for location recording. The radio mikes of the day were cumbersome and unreliable, but the SN could be easily concealed in an actorís clothing and models, like this one, had a pilot tone facility so a soundtrack recording can be synchronised to film during post production. Throughout the 1970s and early 80s several variants were produced, including stereo and special high performance models but they all shared the same basic layout and mechanical design.

 

What really sets the SN and later variants apart from all of the other miniature tape recorders of the 60s and 70s -- and there were quite a few of them -- was the outstanding performance and build quality. The chassis is milled from a solid block of lightweight alloy; each and every mechanical component is precision made from the finest, most hard wearing materials, the design of the electronic modules is second to none and recording quality, speed stability and reliability are legendary.

 

The small size is largely due to the use of 3.81 mm (1/8in) wide tape, the same as that used in Compact Cassettes. However, one of the main points of interest is an almost complete lack of controls; the small metal tab poking from the left side of the body is basically all there is. Push it in for playback (it goes into record mode when a microphone is connected); pulling it out disengages the reel brakes for rewind, except there is no powered rewind function. Instead there is a small pop up handle Ė mounted between the reels Ė connected by gears to the feed reel. Itís not as tedious as it sounds, and hand cranking a full reel of tape only takes a minute or so, and as an added bonus has no impact on battery life.

 

On the far right side of the body is one of the smallest recording and battery level meters you are ever likely to see -- it's smaller than a pound coin; the battery test button is on the side. Record/replay speed is set using a screwdriver (a recessed set-screw is mounted under the take-up reel) and there are two rows of sockets (a proprietary design) for microphone, audio input and output, pilot tone and remote control, or connection to one of a large range of accessory modules, plus there is a 3.5mm jack for headphones on the left side.

 

Itís the attention to detail and build-quality that grabs your attention; there are lots of  small touches, like three transparent windows in the lid, so you can see how much tape is on the feed and take-up reels, and keep an eye on the level meter. The tape heads, capstan and tape guides are not hidden away but are meant to be accessible, to make tape threading easier and to allow for inspection, cleaning, adjustment and replacement. The aluminium lid is a snug fit, itís tough too, designed to protect the machine. Inside and out everything is helpfully labelled, thereís even a detailed block diagram of the electronics on the inside of the battery compartment. In short it is a superb example of

miniaturisation and craftsmanship and anyone who has handled one will tell you is a delight to use, and a wonderfully tactile little device.

 

What Happened To It?

Back in 2001 when I acquired this SNS there was no shortage of these little machines on the market, selling for what now seems like giveaway prices. There were even stories, probably apocryphal, that perfectly good SNs were thrown out or ended up in skips. The point was they had effectively become redundant, thanks to major advances in radio microphones. High quality digital recording systems were also starting to take over in many areas of movie making and broadcasting and secret agents had long since switched to smaller and more discrete devices    

 

I paid around £100 for this 1973 vintage model, which at the time I thought it was a hefty sum, and the most I had ever spent on a tape recorder but Iím kicking myself now. It was one of several on offer for the same or even less money, though this was easily the best of the bunch, and the only one that I was able to check was working. It also came with a microphone and half a dozen spare reels of tape, several of them still in their original packaging.

 

Today Nagra SNS, SSN and SNSTs (the latter is a stereo model) can be found selling on ebay for anything between £500 and £2500, depending on condition, and often a lot more if they come with high-end accessories and add-ons. That probably sounds like a lot to pay for what is after all just a cute, but effectively obsolete and rather basic audio recording device but if you appreciate precision engineering and electronics then I suspect that you might just change your mind if you get the chance to see, handle and listen to one, and if you ever come across one in good order costing substantially less than £500 grab it quick, or tell me!


GIZMO GUIDE

First seen                      1960

Original Price               £?

Value Today                 £500 - £2500 (depending on model, condition and accessories) 0413

Features                        Mono half track recording, 3.81 mm (1/8in) tape, 9.5 and 4.75 cm/sec (3 3/4 and 1 7/8 in/sec) recording speeds, 3 heads (erase, record, replay), frequency response 50 Hz to 15 kHz Ī2 dB, wow and flutter 0.05%, automatic level control, hand crank rewind, sync/pilot tone recoding, analogue moving coil level and battery meter, quartz controlled capstan motor

Power req.                     2 x AA cell

Dimensions:                   145 x 100 x 25mm

Weight:                          500g

Made in:                        Switzerland

Hen's Teeth (10 rarest):  8


Aiwa TP-60R Mini Tape Recorder, 1965

This has to be one of my all-time favourite mini reel-to-reel tape recorders from the 1960s and one of the few from a company that most people will recognise, though these days Aiwa no longer makes anything and Sony owns the brand.

 

The Aiwa TP-60R is a really solid little machine, all metal construction and superbly well made. It is unusual in having push-button controls and a proper electromagnetic erase head, rather than the more common permanent magnet type. Thereís also a spring loaded tape head pressure plate that can be opened to remove tangles, clean the pressure pads, and maybe even used for rudimentary editing, making marking the tape much easier and more accurate. However, under the skin it is quite basic and uses a crude rim-drive mechanism. This involves a single motor directly driving the reels by pressing the motor spindle against the rubber rims of the supply and take-up reels. This technique has a number of disadvantages, notably a significant variation in the speed at which tape passes the head, as one reel empties and the other fills up. It doesnít matter too much when the tape is played back on the machine the recording was made but the lack of any real speed stability means recording quality is not very good (and that's being kind...).

 

Itís difficult to say exactly who it was aimed at. Itís clearly not a toy, like many other miniature machines of this type. The instructions suggest that it is suitable for a Ďwide range of applicationsí, though in practice the only thing it can do passably well is record speech so itís likely it was mainly used for dictation. Thatís reinforced by the presence of a remote pause switch on the microphone, which would be essential as the tiny 62mm (2.5-inch) reels only hold enough tape for around 10 Ė 12 minutes of recording per side. In common with virtually all rim-drive machines it only has two transport modes, play/record and rewind, the only other control is a volume thumbwheel. There are three jack sockets, two for the mike (one of them is used by the pause switch) and an earphone. It has a built-in speaker and power comes from four 1.5-volt AA cells, which live in a compartment on the rear. The complete outfit included a snazzy leather carry case, strap and mike and all in all it looks and feels like a quality product.

 

What Happened To It?

In Japanese terms Aiwa is a relative newcomer. It was founded in the early fifties and although Sony had a discreet controlling interest in the company since the late 60s it was fiunally taken over by Sony in 2002. Aiwa made a number of mini reel-to-reel tape recorders throughout the 1960s; one of the earliest being the TP-32A  and later the TP-61, which was basically a TP60 but with a plastic case. Larger and more competent reel-to-reel machines followed but it will be best remembered for its personal cassette players. From the early 70s Aiwa constantly vied with Sony to produce the smallest and most advanced models. Aiwa was also responsible for an extensive range of hi fi systems, budget VCRs and TVs. It was never really a high-end brand, nevertheless it was generally well respected and its products had a decent reputation for performance, reliability and value for money. However, by the late 1990s Aiwa was struggling and came close to bankruptcy in 2002 when it was bought up by Sony, one of its major shareholders.

 

Over the years I managed to acquire a number of TP-60s, mostly from ebay, and mainly from US sellers, as it appears that not many were ever sold in this country. This was before there was any real interest in these small machines, prices back then were very low and I doubt that I ever paid more £10 - £15 for one, and probably half as much for shipping. This one is a worker and cosmetically fairly average but I have a couple in near mint condition, still in their original boxes and complete with all of the accessories Ė those were the daysÖ

   

They can still be found ebay every so often, almost always in the US, but UK sellers are not unknown. Occasionally one slips under the radar and sells at a bargain price but clean ones in good working order can easily fetch £50, sometimes a good deal more.


GIZMO GUIDE (Instructions)

First seen                       1965

Original Price                £10?

Value Today                  £20 - £70 0213

Features                        62mm (2.5-inch) reels, 2-track mono recording, rim drive mechanism, push-button controls, electromagnetic erase, remote pause, microphone & earphone jacks, 55mm built-in speaker

Power req.                     4 x AA cell

Dimensions:                   140 x 85 x 50 mm

Weight:                          600g

Made in:                        Japan

Hen's Teeth (10 rarest):  7


Uher 4000 RM Report Monitor, 1980

Not so long ago the Uher 4000 was the workhorse portable tape recorder for BBC radio. From the late seventies to mid nineties there must have been hundreds, if not thousands of them scattered throughout the Corporation, including this one, confirmed by a stamp on the back. Many old and non-serviceable machines were sold off by the BBC over the years, and a great many went walkabout, so how this one ended up at rural car boot sale near Bournemouth I cannot say. The seller wanted £10 for it and claimed know nothing about its origins, so we did the deed and left it at thatÖ

 

This Uher 4000 is a little unusual for an ex-beeb machine because it has the full range of speed options. Many models were modified to only operate at 19cm/sec (7.5ips), often by removing the speed selector knob and blanking off the hole; using one standard recording was meant to simplify editing operations. Itís not hard to see why the BBC chose this machine; performance and build quality are both excellent, itís solid, reliable, robust and relatively lightweight, and you donít need a degree in audio engineering to use it.

 

Time for some specs. This is the baseline model in Uherís 4000 series, a 2-track mono machine, using 13cm reels and standard quarter inch tape. Noteworthy features include three tape heads for real time monitoring. Unmodified 4000s have four recording speeds (2.4, 4.7, 9.5, 19 cm/sec); at the very slowest speed it is capable of making continuous recordings of more than 12 hours, albeit at a fairly low sound quality. Itís kitted out with professional XLR connectors for microphone and headphone, plus a set of oddly wired DIN sockets for various external inputs and outputs. It is powered by a 6-volt rechargeable battery pack, or 5 standard D cells. Basic operation is very straightforward with a set of piano keys for the transport functions. Thereís an illuminated recording level and battery check meter on the front. On more up-range models, which share the same chassis, thereís a second meter but on this one the hole is occupied by an unnecessarily large recording level knob. It has a built-in speaker, three-digit tape counter and my boot sale bargain came with a slightly tatty custom carry case with pockets for the microphone spare battery and headphones.

 

Even if it had been a no-hope junker, it came with an empty metal Uher tape reel, which is worth more than the £10 I paid for it.  As it turned out it wasnít a runner -- that would have been too much to ask -- but the small handful of problems it had turned out to be relatively minor in nature. One of the drive belts had perished, until I get around to sourcing a replacement a small elastic band works very well indeed. The pause function works only intermittently and the rewind key doesnít latch properly. Neither are serious and should be fairly easy to fix but look as though they will involve some fairly extensive disassembly, so it can wait. Cosmetically it is pretty fair shape, there some dinks and dents on the base plate and a few scratches and scuff marks but nothing that stops it working, and thatís where it really shows its stuff. Recording quality at the two highest speeds is outstanding, suggesting that it has been well maintained and quite probably kitted out with new heads on a fairly regular basis.   

 

What Happened To It?

The Uher Report range of high-end and professional portable reel-to-reel tape recorders has a long and illustrious history. The first models appeared in the late sixties and the last ones rolled off the line in the early 1990s. Countless variations of the 4000 series were produced but eventually, as with many other things, audio recording made the inevitable transition from analogue to digital. The professional and broadcast end of the market led the way and it happened quickly in portable applications like radio reporting, where smaller, lighter machines with better stability and longer recoding times proved especially popular.

 

There is no shortage of Uher 4000s on the market and I have come across numerous reports of machines turning up in flea markets and car boot sales at silly prices; a fair few seem to have ended up in skips, for heavenís sakeÖ Nevertheless, if you want a decent one in good working order then you can expect to pay upwards of £100, perhaps two or three times more if it is an especially clean specimen with a full compliment of accessories and a nice leather carry case. Even so, thatís still not a lot to pay for such a high quality piece of equipment, and a fraction of what it would have cost you if you had wanted to buy one when they first appeared.


GIZMO GUIDE

First seen                       1980

Original Price                 £1500

Value Today                   £50 Ė £300, depending on condition 0113

Features                         2-track mono, 3 permalloy heads, 2.4, 4.7, 9.5, 19 cm/sec (15/16, 1 7/8, 3 3/4, 7 1/2 ips) recording speeds, 12-hour recording mode, diecast chassis, 3 digit tape counter, illuminated battery/rec level meter, DIN, XLR & Jack connections, phantom power supply for microphone

Weight:                          3.5kg

Power req.                     5 x D cells or ni-cad rechargeable battery pack

Dimensions:                   288 x 95 x 230mm

Made in:                         Germany

Hen's Teeth (10 rarest):   4


HMV 2210 Tape Recorder, 1967

The 2210 was my first Ďproperí reel-to-reel tape recorder, though to be strictly accurate it belonged to my father who unexpectedly bought it home one day. It was a real surprise, he wasnít noticeably interested in what was then quite modern technology and my guess is he picked it up cheap somewhere or it was given to him or was in part payment of a bill for his small engineering business. As far as I can remember he never actually used it so it swiftly passed into my jurisdiction. 

 

Back then HMV was one of a number of brands owned by Thorn, part of the British Radio Corporation, later to become Thorn EMI and this model, and several close variants*, appeared under a variety of names, including Ferguson, Marconiphone and Ultra, to name just a few. It was attractively priced and hugely popular; as far as I can tell the basic design ran from around 1963 to 1969. Key features include 4-track recording (thatís four mono tracks, two per side), and towards the end of its production life it must have been one of the last consumer tape recorders still using valves. There were three of them in the amplifier, plus a valve-type device called a Ďmagic eyeí indicator. Part of it can be seen through the small rectangular window above the tone control knob on the left hand side. This is for a phosphor screen on the side of the valve. It displays two glowing green bands that expand and contract with the recorded sound. The idea is to set the optimum level by adjusting the volume control so that the bands just meet in the middle; it was simple and very effective.

 

The all-metal deck is a wonderful piece of engineering with large piano key controls for the transport mechanism. Tape speed is capstan controlled, switchable between, 1 7/8 and 3 3/4 inches per second and it can accommodate reels of up to 5 3/4 inches in diameter. Other useful features include a superimpose mode (record without erase) and amplifier function, which means it could be used as a simple PA system.

 

Thanks to all of the ironmongery, wooden case and valves it weighs in at a hefty 9.5kg. It comes complete with its own crystal microphone Ė with remote pause control Ė and when not in use this lives in a compartment on the back, with stowage space for the mains lead as well.

 

This one came from ebay, thereís always two or three on offer but this one caught my eye because the seller said it was in good cosmetic order and it seemed to be powering up with a hum from the speaker but the reels were not turning. This sounded like something that I could fix Ė a broken drive belt or sticky bearing etc.; I would have given it a very wide berth if there were any problems with the amplifier. I dislike tinkering with valves intensely, I almost always end up getting shocked and finding replacements is becoming increasingly difficult, and expensive. No one else seemed to be interested in it and it was secured with a £5.00 bid, plus £10.00 shipping.

 

I was right on both counts the main drive belt had perished and the grease on several bearings and linkages had dried up. A quick brush up and a few drops of 3-in-One got things moving again. I managed to find someone selling sets of drive belts for this model but I was put off by the price of almost twenty quid, for what are basically two elastic bands, one for the main drive and a smaller one for the tape counter. So thatís what I used, at nil cost as near exact size rubber bands are regularly deposited outside my front door by the postman. They're probably not as resiliant as the genuine article but theyíve lasted six months so far with no problems. Replacing the big elastic band, sorry, drive belt, the first time was a bit of a palaver. It looked impossible without taking the whole deck apart but eventually I figured it out and the new one has to be teased into place by removing a bearing cap from the flywheel and moving it into position with a piece of thin hooked wire. Now IĎve got the hang it I reckon that the next time it shouldnít take more than10 minutes or so.

 

For a tape recorder thatís getting on for half a century old it still sounds surprisingly good. New and old recordings have a flat and even response. The valve amp gives it a characteristic warm full-bodied sound, heard through a large elliptical speaker that has developed a smooth mellow quality over the years.

 

What Happened To It?

Reel to reel tape recorders were on a steady decline throughout most of the time this model and its stablemates were in production, thanks to the smaller, cheaper and more convenient Compact Cassette format, which first appeared in 1963. The use of valves also made it something of a dinosaur and even if cassettes hadnít taken over I doubt that switching to transistor-based electronics would have been made any difference to its prospects.

 

I have no idea what happened to my original 2210, most likely it developed a fault and my futile attempts to fix it would probably resulted in it being dumped, after removing any interesting looking parts for tinkering and experiments.

 

Judging by the number of these machines appearing on ebay, and from my own experiences, it is obvious they were built to last and with a reliable supply of elastic bands thereís no reason why it shouldnít continue for a good while yet. Prices vary enormously; I have seen pristine examples sell for as much as £100 one day and £25 the next. Fixer-uppers often go for just a few pounds; if you know your way around valve circuitry they are cheap enough to buy a couple for parts to put one together. Itís a very practical collectible and if you want one to play around with, and which looks good, you can definitely afford to be choosy.

* Other models with the same deck mechanism include:

Ferguson, 3200, 3202, 3204, 3208, 3210, 3212, 3224
HMV 2204, 2206, 2210, 2212, 2220 2206
Marconiphone 4200, 4202, 4204, 4214, 4216
Ultra 6200, 6202, 6204, 6219, 6214, 6216

GIZMO GUIDE

First seen                      1967

Original Price                £25.00?  

Value Today                  £25.00 1112

Features                        4-track reel to reel, capstan drive, 1 7/8 & 3 3/4 inches per second tape speeds, Ďmagic eyeí level indicator, volume & tone controls, 5.75-inch max reel size, 3-valve amplifier (ECC83 ECL86 & EM87), remote pause on supplied microphone, superimpose/amplifier modes, tape counter, mechanical piano key controls

Weight:                          9.5kg

Power req.                     240 VAC

Dimensions:                   350 x 310 x 165mm

Made in:                         England

Hen's Teeth (10 rarest):  5


Panasonic RS-600US Cassette Deck, 1977

Looking back over the long history of the Compact Cassette relatively few models stand out as classics, not that there werenít some outstanding machines over the years, but the turnover rate was incredible and few models remained in production for longer than a year or so. I spent a good chunk of my early career in magazine journalism traipsing around trade shows and exhibitions and attending press receptions, politely trying to look impressed, and working hard to find something to write about, as eager manufacturers proudly reeled out their shiny new model ranges every spring, and sometimes in the autumn as well.

 

Often the differences between one seasonís offerings and the next were minimal; maybe some redesigned switches or displays. If we were very lucky there was a whizzy new feature, with a long acronym like AFRPS, or S-CRUD (Iím not even sure I made those upÖ). They were very popular with consumer electronics journos and you could spin out otherwise dull copy, filling sidebars or boxes with Ďteccyí sounding explanations. Anyway, the point is most CE products of the 70s and 80s, and this is especially true of mainstream audio, were largely unmemorable. But there were exceptions, and the Panasonic RS-600US was one of them.

 

It lasted from 1977 to 1980, something of a record, but it was a real crowd pleaser, appealing to both geeky teenagers and more grown-up users. Just look at those big VU level meters and all the switches and sliders. The black top panel with the outlined sections, unnecessary labelling and chunky slider controls gave it the professional Ďmixer deskí look. Never mind that the two sliders either side of the Right and Left channel level controls donít actually do anything, and within a few months dust and fluff on the tracks of the working sliders made them noisy and almost unusable. It was a shame about the mockwood lower half too, but that was almost obligatory on any product sold in the US, and Panasonic probably couldnít be bothered Ė at that time anyway Ė to re-hash the cosmetics for the smaller European market.

 

The headline features are an auto-stop tape deck mechanism, tape grade selector switch (ferric, chrome or normal), Noise Filter (this was pre-Dolby so it was a simple de-hisser), and a Limiter switch. This one is a bit of a mystery and seems only to work on the microphone channels, preventing the input from clipping at high level settings. Thereís also a 3-digit mechanical tape counter and we canít forget the dancing, light-up VU meters, helpfully calibrated in decibels; well they look great anywayÖ Two pairs of phono sockets on the back handle stereo inputs and output and there are two mono mike inputs and a headphone socket on the front, all standard ľ-inch jacks.

 

At first glance the spec appears fairly modest, but in those days Panasonic knew its markets well and it was precisely the right mix for the target audience who wanted it Ė in fairly equal measure -- for making compilation tapes in the bedroom, or impressing the neighbours and listening to Max Bygraves (look it upÖ).  

 

I had all but forgotten about the RS-600, until I spotted this one under a trestle table at a Surrey car boot sale. Thirty seconds and a pound coin later it had a new owner. The seller told me it had been sitting in his garage for at least 10 years and had no idea whether it worked. Knowing Panasonicís legendary build quality I reckoned it had a better than 50 percent chance of being repairable but as it turned out, all bets were off and it powered up and worked first time. All that was needed to get it back into presentable condition was some light dusting, a few squirts of contact cleaner and a wipe over with Mr Sheen. In spite of its age and the inevitable toll taken on the deck mechanism and head-wear, it still sounds suprisingly good and speed stability is spot on. Maybe itís not as crisp sounding as later decks, and background noise is noticeable but it still manages to bring alive the distinctive analogue cassette sound, and a lot of fond memories.

 

What Happened To It?

Soon after the RS-600US appeared the Walkman craze began, and everyoneís attention, mine included, shifted to portable decks. Meanwhile, the trend in home audio was moving towards integrated, rather than stand-alone tape decks, slotted into music centres phoney Ďstackí systems and hi-fi Ďseparatesí. It had a very good run, though, and being quite ruthless, Panasonic wouldnít have kept it in production for so long if it werenít selling well. Suprisingly few turn up on ebay, which suggests that owners didnít feel the need to hang on to them once theyíd bought their winky lights stack/separate hi-fi system. As always putting a value on something as outwardly ordinary as this is a problem, but I doubt that I would have paid more than £5.00 for one, working or not. On the other hand, if you had one, or remember it and want some cheap, fully functional technological nostalgia donít be afraid to pay from £30 upwards for one in decent condition.


GIZMO GUIDE

First seen                        1977

Original Price                  £75

Value Today                    £30 0912

Features                          2-head, 4-track stereo cassette, auto-stop deck mechanism, chrome/normal tape selection, 3-digit tape counter, illuminated VU level meters, stereo in/out (phono), 2 x mono microphone input (jack), headphone output (jack), peak limiter, noise filter

Power req.                      240v AC

Weight:                           2.8kg

Dimensions:                    355 x 98 x 235

Made in:                         Japan

Hen's Teeth (10 rarest):   6


Starlite Pocket Mate Mini Tape Recorder 1965?

This has to be one of my all-time favourite mini tape recorders from the 1960s. It looks like a proper piece of spy kit and although Iíve never seen it on TV or the movies, its exactly the sort of thing youíd expect to feature in Mission Impossible, The Man from U.N.C.L.E, Danger Man or even a Bond movie. (In fact a Soviet era copy of a model closely related to this one has appeared in a Russian TV series). 

 

The sad fact is it wouldnít fare too well in the world of espionage. It uses a notoriously unsteady rim-drive tape mechanism and those tiny, super cute tape reels only hold enough tape for around 5 Ė 10 minutes worth of recording. Adverts and publicity material of the time suggest that it was sold as a dictating machine but in view of its limited capacity thatís rather ambitious. In truth itís little more than a toy, albeit a very well made one.

 

It was probably made by a Japanese company called Tinico. It definitely shares quite a few features with other models from that company, including the deck mechanism and those 44mm tape reels. These are a custom design I have never seen them on any other machines. They are also quite fragile and unusual in that the tape is permanently attached to the reels, so flipping or changing tapes is quite a palaver.

 

Other features of note include a proper erase head. Most rim drive machines from this period have permanent magnet erase head, mounted on short arms that move the magnet into contact with the tape when the machine is in record mode. My guess is the electromagnetic head was used in this case due to a combination of lack of space for a swing-arm mechanism, and it just looks better. Another oddity is the variable tape speed control, these are fairly rare on tape recorders, but they can be quite useful on rim-drive machines, where the speed at which the tape passes the head changes as the reels fill up and empty. Itís not a problem on tapes recorded on this machine but tapes from another recorder will almost certainly have speed errors. Finally, thereís the push-button controls. This is another very classy touch, and fitting it into such a small space was quite a feat.

 

Power for the single motor is supplied by a pair of 1.5 volt AA cells and the two transistor amplifier runs from a 9-volt PP3 type battery; these life in a compartment on the underside. It really is beautifully made with heavily chrome-plated trim, all metal construction, including the case, and well-designed control mechanism.

 

What Happened To It?

Sadly, like most rim-drive machines, of any size, recording quality is very poor. Itís just about okay for speech but this one also suffered from very short recording times, so it lacked any real application. It would have had relatively short shelf-life as a dictating machine in any case as by 1967 Philips had begun marketing its revolutionary PM85 Minicassette pocket recorder, which was smaller, had much better sound quality and ran for significantly longer than this one, or any of its rivals. 

 

This is one of several machines of this type in my collection, one of them is badged Electra 7700. I was lucky enough to snag them all several years ago on ebay, mostly from US sellers, when prices and shipping were a good deal lower than they are today. I canít remember exactly how much I paid for it, but it probably wasnít much more than £10.00. It is in full working order and good all round cosmetic condition, though Iím reluctant to power it up any more as the battery holder for one of the AA cells has developed a small crack and with this type of plastic itís only going to get worse.

 

They still come up for sale from time to time but the prices have sky-rocketed and the last one I saw sold for well over £200, though it was a very fine specimen, complete with original carry case, microphone and box. It goes without saying, but Iíll say it anyway, if you ever see one of these, and itís a sensible price, grab it quick!


GIZMO GUIDE

First seen:                        1965?

Original Price                   £25

Value Today?                   £50 0812

Features                           Rim drive tape mechanism, variable speed, 44mm/1.75 inch reels, built-in speaker, Play/Record/Rewind push-button controls, microphone jack, rotary volume control

Power req.                        2 x AA, 1 x PP3

Weight:                             500g

Dimensions:                      205 x 65 x 40mm

Made in:                           Japan

Hen's Teeth (10 rarest):     8


Philips EL3586 Portable Tape Recorder, 1964

Philips secured a well-earned place in the history of consumer electronics with a number of notable firsts, including the video cassette recorder and Compact Disc, but it will probably be best remembered for the compact cassette, introduced in 1963. It revolutionised the music industry and home recording and left a lasting cultural legacy. One way or another compact cassette was responsible for the personal stereo, compilation tapes, music piracy, bootlegging and the list goes on. However, whilst it was a huge success, it took several years before it killed off traditional reel-to-reel tape recorders Ė portable models at any rate Ė and even Philips seemed to be hedging their bets with machines like this one, which continued in production until the late 1960s.

 

The EL3586 was first seen a year after the launch of compact cassette, though the basic design concept of a portable tape recorder using 3-inch reels and top-mounted deck mechanism, had actually been around since the late 50s. Despite appearances it is quite a lump, weighing in at over 3kg, and thatís without the kilogram or so of six D-cells, which helps explain the heavy-duty carry handle. A fair chunk of that weight is down to the tough all-metal deck mechanism. Itís a capstan drive system, ensuring a fairly steady tape speed of 4.74 cm/sec (1 7/8 inches per second). This was certainly good enough for speech and fair to middling music replay. Faster tape speed would have yielded even better audio performance but it would have been impractical; as it was a 3-inch reel full of tape only lasted around 12Ė15 minutes.

 

Other features worth mentioning include a 7-transistor audio amplifier. Remember, back then transistors were the new kids on the block and valves still ruled the roost in audio but they simply couldnít compete in applications like this, where portability, weight and power consumption were critical factors. It comes with a microphone, which fits into a recess on the left side. This detaches, and thereís a compartment behind for the cable and plug, which fits into a DIN socket on the right side. On the front panel thereís a neat little battery/audio level meter and below that two thumbwheels for volume and tone. The tape transport controls consist of three push buttons (rewind, play & fast forward); record mode is engaged by pressing a large red-topped chrome button to the right of the tape head cover. The keys are quite stiff, and it takes a while to get used to them; weíre used interlocked keys, where pressing one, releases another but on this machine you have to gently pull the depressed key towards you to unlock the function. The top covers for the tape head and capstan wheel are removable, presumably to make it easier to untangle tape. The whole thing is topped off by transparent dust cover, with slots for access to the transport buttons.

 

I found this one, looking grubby and unloved at one of Brightonís flea markets and being a wet and windy Sunday the stallholder was happy to accept £4.00 for it. I had checked the battery compartment for corrosion; it looked clean so there was a very fair chance it was salvageable. As it turned out, all it needed was mucking out and a few drops of oil and it was running, with impressive volume from the 15cm speaker. Even the recording function worked first time. This was remarkable considering that it probably hadnít been used for at least 20 years. I based this on the amount of dust and dirt inside, the caked condition of the grease on the moving parts, and the design of the six EverReady batteries still inside, which I am reasonably sure havenít been made for the best part of two decades.    

 

What Happened To It?

Philips decision not to abandon portable reel-to-reel tape recorders after the launch of compact cassette suggests that it wasnít entirely confident that the new format would take off. Itís hard to think of any other reasons why machines like this remained in production for so long as it had little or nothing going for it. It was bigger and heavier than rival cassette recorders, it suffered from shorter running times, the quality was relatively poor and I suspect it cost more to produce, if not buy. There was obviously a small legacy market and a number of die-hards who refused to accept the change, but my guess is that by the mid 1960s sales of machines like this one had reduced to a trickle and Philips finally pulled the plug. I donít have the numbers but I suspect tens of thousands of them were made, but judging by how often they appear on ebay, relatively few remain, and being made of an particularly brittle plastic, I doubt that many are as in good a condition as this one, which has no cracks or blemishes. Price-wise, my £4.00 was definitely well spent, though I admit I was very lucky. In itís present very clean working condition I wouldnít be surprised if it sold for ten times as much on ebay, possibly more if it came with an instruction manual and one of the rare mains power supply modules. Good quality or unusual reel-to-reel tape recorders remain very collectable and there are clearly still bargains to be had so keep your eyes peeled!


GIZMO GUIDE

First seen:                         1964

Original Price                    £25.00?

Value Today?                    £40.00 0712

Features                            2-track mono reel-to-reel tape recorder, 3-inch/7.5cm reels, capstan drive, 4.74 cm per sec/1 7/8 inches per second, play/record/fast forward/rewind modes, recording level/battery meter, volume & tone thumbwheels, detachable microphone, 7-trasnistor amplifier, 15cm internal speaker, microphone & external power (DIN) sockets, detachable carry handle             

Power req.                         6 x 1.5 bolt D cell

Weight:                              3.2kg

Dimensions:                       265 x 200mm x 95

Made in:                            Holland

Hen's Teeth (10 rarest):      7


Sony Walkman TPS-L2 Personal Stereo, 1979

Itís a regular contender for the most important, most influential, most iconic etc. etc. gadget of all time and deservedly so because the Sony TPS-L2 is where personal music on the move all began. This is the first and original Walkman, launched in 1979 though to be strictly accurate in its first few months it was also known as the Stowaway, Freestyle and Soundabout, depending where you were in the world. Sony quickly sorted that one out and Walkman became the generic name that it, and a multitude of copycat products became known.

 

Whilst weíre on the subject of accuracy, credit for the first personal stereo cassette player actually goes to a chap called Andreas Pavel. He filed a patent for the idea, called Stereobelt, in 1972, but he had to wait until 1986, following a long drawn out legal battle, before Sony begrudgingly coughed up some royalties, and he didnít get a full and final settlement until 2003.

 

There is no dispute over Sonyís brilliance at marketing the device, its incredible popularity and the huge impact it has had on generations of music lovers, not to mention youth culture, the leisure and consumer electronics industries. Itís also worth pointing out the huge risk Sony took, selling a cassette tape recorder that couldnít record for the thick end of £150. It was actually a really big deal back then, a lot of reviewers and commentators thought Sony were absolutely mad and predicted that it would be a flop.

 

As far as the design and operation is concerned it hardly needs any explanation, though there are a few points of interest that were unique to this model. For a start it had a mostly metal case, and was typically Ė for Sony -- over-engineered, and built like a brick outhouse. The orange button on the top is the Hotline feature, this mutes the sound coming from the tape and pipes sound from a front mounted microphone, so you can hear what someone is saying without having to drop the volume or take off your headphones. It has two volume sliders, rather than a separate balance control, and there are two headphone jacks, so you can share your music with a close friend (who needs their own headphones, incidentally, as only one is supplied). While weíre on the subject of headphones, the Walkman came with a pair of Sonyís revolutionary MDR3s, and thereís more on those here.

 

Some of those features were slavishly copied by the many rivals that appeared in the following months but none of them came close to matching the sound and build quality, not to mention the Kudos of owning this machine.

 

My one is a pre-launch review model sent to one of the magazines I was working on at the time. Like so many products at that time it was an instant hit in the office and a real showstopper, with me and several of my fellow journalists desperately trying to blag more review samples from Sony (I donít think we had much luck as they were in very short supply). The box and manual was branded Stowaway, rather than Walkman and I curse my stupidity for not keeping it, but I still have the original blue leatherette carry case and headphones and the satisfaction of a machine with a serial number in the very low thousands, making it one of the first off the line.

 

What Happened To It?

Throughout the 80s and 90s Sony kept up the pressure and produced a succession of outstanding cassette machines bearing the Walkman badge but competition was fierce. There were plenty of rival machines from the likes of Aiwa, Panasonic and Toshiba with similar or even better performance, more features, smaller cases and so on, but the Sony Walkman was always the one to beat, and the one to be seen with, but time was running out for the Compact Cassette.

 

By the late 1990s other technologies were starting to have an impact on the personal stereo market. CD and MiniDisc (another Sony development), were capable of noticeably better sound quality, though it would take a while before they could match cassette players for price and mechanical stability. But the writing was on the wall for all forms of magnetic and optical media and towards the end of the 1990s the first stirrings of solid-state memory based devices, data compression and the ubiquitous MP3 spelt the end for small boxes full of whirring motors, gears and pulleys. It didnít happen overnight, though and the demise of the cassette Walkman marque has been a long drawn out affair. By 2003 the market was essentially dead but cheapie Walkman cassette players were still being manufactured for Sony in China up until 2010, though they were only sold in limited numbers to specialist markets.

 

I have no idea how many of the original first generation TPS-L2s were made but it probably wasnít that many. Within a few months of the launch they were being branded as Walkmans, so if you are after a collectible early model look for one without a name badge on the cassette cover. There are always a few on ebay and prices vary wildly, I have seen mint boxed examples go for several hundred pounds, even fairly ordinary ones can make £100 on a good day, but the occasional bargain slips through so the trick is to be patient.


GIZMO GUIDE

First seen:                         1979

Original Price                   £125

Value Today?                   £100? 0712

Features:                          stereo cassette player, capstan drive, Play/Rew/FF, volume, headphones, 3V DC in, carry case, 'Hot Line' talk through, twin headphone sockets, 2-mode tone switch

Power req.                        2 x AA cell

Weight:                             400g

Dimensions:                      135 x 90 x 30mm

Made in:                           Japan

Hen's Teeth (10 rarest):     8


Sony Recording Walkman WM-R2, 1982

Much has been written about Sonyís first and iconic Walkman, the TPS-L2 -- including our own modest contribution -- but the models that followed immediately afterwards have been largely forgotten. To be honest most of them were fairly unmemorable but one does stand out, and thatís the WM-R2, which appeared in 1982.

 

Its main claim to fame was that it had a recording facility. This was a rather odd development; back in the early 80s consumer electronics manufacturers were desperately trying to catch up and cash in on the Walkmanís success, churning out vast numbers of ever smaller cassette players with no recording function, so this was seen, by some, as a strange backwards step. As it turned out it wasnít a great success, and this may in part have been due to the somewhat optimistic cosmetics, which gave it the appearance of a professional recording device. The pair of stereo mikes on the top look as though they should be detachable, or at least moveable, but they are just dummies and an integral part of the case. The Normal/Metal tape switch on the side suggests the possibility of recording on high-performance tape, when in fact this was a playback only function. The list goes on, thereís no manual recording level control or display, or any form of noise reduction and it uses a simple magnetic erase head. In short it was little more than a fancy dictating machine. But letís not be too critical, it was definitely a notch up and novel twist on the standard Walkman and for a while it was the one to be seen with.

 

Under the bonnet there was the usual Sony build quality and the mostly metal case is packed to the rafters with electronics and a precision-engineered deck mechanism with light(ish) touch push-button controls. It had several interesting features, including twin headphone jacks, a mechanical tape counter and external microphone input. It also had the Hot Line function that first appeared on the TPS-L2 and allowed whatever was coming through the microphones to be heard on the headphones. Sony billed this as Ďlockableí Ė it was operated by a push button on the TPS-L2 Ė however, the rumour was that this was only because there was no space for a button, so they used a slide switch instead. There may also have been some crafty spin on the Punch-In record function. Basically this meant you could go directly into Record Mode during playback, just by pressing the Record button (on non-protected tapes). On just about every other cassette recorder ever made thereís an interlock, to prevent accidental recording and you have go into Stop Mode first, and press Play and Record together, to start recording. One story goes that there wasnít room inside the very crowded case. I also seem to remember hearing a suggestion that they simply forgot to fit the interlock, but whatever the reason they cleverly made a feature out of it

 

What Happened To It?

The WM-R2 was only in production for a relatively short time. Probably not that many were made and I suspect sales were poor due to the high price or around £250, which was a fair old sum in 1982. The trouble was it wasnít clear who it was aimed at. Back then you could buy a small, high quality personal stereo for around £50, or a decent dedicated dictating machine for less than half the price of an WM-R2. It wasnít going to be much use for making bootleg recordings at concerts Ė there were plenty of better qualified machines on the market Ė and it bucked the trend towards miniaturisation, so apart from the questionable kudos of owning one, it wasnít a very desirable machine. Sony revisited the recording Walkman market a few years later but this time they did the job properly with a machine pitched at serious and professional users, with a specification (and price tag) to match.   

 

I came across this grubby looking specimen at a Surrey car boot sale and the stallholder was honest enough to say that he didnít think it worked. A quick check to make sure the battery compartment was free of corrosion suggested that it had potential, and was worth every penny of the £2.00 asking price. As it turned out there was nothing seriously wrong with it, just a stretched drive belt. I didnít have one to hand so I popped in an elastic band and hey-presto, everything worked and after a quick clean up it doesnít look half bad. This one isnít worth much more than I paid for it but clean working examples, especially if they come with the original carry case and packaging could be a good investment and a worthwhile addition to any collection of early Walkmans.


GIZMO GUIDE

First seen:                         1982

Original Price                     £250.00

Value Today?                    £20.00? 0712

Features                            Compact Cassette stereo playback and record, ĎHot Lineí, ĎPunch-Iní record, norm/metal tape playback, push button controls, tape counter, twin microphones, twin 3.5mm stereo headphone jacks, mic/line input jack, record/batt LED indicator, external power connector, pause control rotary volume

Power req.                         2 x AA cell

Weight:                              342g

Dimensions:                      135 x 87mm x 44

Made in:                           Japan

Hen's Teeth (10 rarest):     6


Grundig EN3 Dictating Machine, 1964

No, itís not an electric razor, itís the Grundig EN3 a hand-held dictating machine, designed for recording the thoughts and musings of busy executives and professionals. Essentially itís a miniature tape recorder, but apart from the small size what makes it especially interesting is that it was one of the earliest cassette recorders. The EN3 first appeared back in 1964, about the same time as the revolutionary Philips Compact Cassette, which as we know went on the bigger and better things. It wasnít a rival, though, or a even contender for the home recording market; its one and only function was to record speech Ė a job it did very well Ė and it continued to do so for a decade, but more on that in a moment.

 

Itís superbly well made, and rugged too, as befits an expensive piece of office equipment. The case appears to be made from a form of Bakelite, rather than plain old plastic, giving it the weight and feel of a telephone. It is very easy to use too, which is just as well as it would have been beneath the execs of the day to learn how to drive complicated contrivances, they had minions to do that for them.

 

The microphone, which doubles up as a speaker, is mounted in a detachable module that plugs into a pair of sockets on top of the machine. The mike/speaker is small so surprisingly itís not very loud; there is certainly no need for a volume control. Incidentally, a later variant of the EN3 had a recording level battery meter built into the module.

 

Everything is controlled from a single red lever switch on the side, operated by the thumb (it works best left-handed). This switches the machine between Record/Stop and Playback/Rewind modes, so you can make a recording, quickly rewind and play it back and if you donít like what you hear, just rewind and over-record, all with one easy action. A simple Ďgateí stops the lever going directly from stop/play to record; it has to be shifted slightly, which stops it being accidentally put into record mode.

 

Moving the lever engages one of two rubber idler wheels with the outside edge or rim of the left or right tape spools, giving the required speed and direction changes for record/play and rewind modes. One of the wheels is driven by a very fancy little electric motor. This has a centrifugally controlled governor, to keep tape, or rather reel speed constant. Rim-drive tape transport systems suffer from variable tape speed, as one reel fills up and the other empties. Itís not a problem for recording and playback, even on cassettes from other machines, as tapes are a consistent length.

 

The electronics are simple and compact. A two-transistor (both Germanium) ampifier circuit handles recording and playback and there's an electromagnetic erase head, for deleting old recordings before a new one is made. Power comes from a set of thee AA cells, which live in a compartment behind the tape cassette.

 

Itís a simple two-track recording system with double-sided cassettes, so when it comes to the end all you have to do is flip it over, each side has enough 1/4-inch (6mm) tape for around 30 minutes recording time. Small windows on both sides of the cassette show that the reels are moving and how much tape is left. EN3ís were supplied with smart leather cases, designed so they could be used without taking it out of the case, and there was a range of accessories, including a playback unit, for typists and stenographers, though these are by now extremely rare.

 

What Happened To It?

I havenít been able to find out how long the EN3 was in production but it was still appearing in office equipment catalogues well in the 1970s. However, it was getting a bit long in the tooth well before that as Philips had introduced its Micro Cassette system in 1967, which allowed dictating machines to be made smaller and cheaper, with much improved sound quality. Even so it managed to soldier on for a few years; the office equipment market is very conservative Ė with a small Ďcí Ė and not subject to whims and trends of consumer electronics. The EN3 would have been a reliable workhorse and built up a loyal following, unwilling to switch to new-fanged devices, even if they were cheaper and did a better job. 

 

I have a couple of EN3s, bought from ebay a few years ago when they were still plentiful and unappreciated. I donít think I would have paid more than £5 for either of them. Theyíre both runners, in good condition and came with tapes and the leather carry cases. One of them suffered from a leaky battery at some point in its career but apart from some very light and easily removed corrosion on the battery contacts it did no real damage. You can still find one or two of them on ebay and sometimes a bargain slips through but good examples usually fetch between £20 and £30; the occasional boxed mint machine can reach £50.00. Itís definitely worth keeping an eye out for bargains as they are only going to get more expensive as time goes by.


GIZMO GUIDE

First seen:                        1964

Original Price                    £80

Value Today?                   £30? 0412

Features:                          Twin track cassette, (6mm/0.24-inch width), rim drive mechanism, record, playback & rewind functions, detachable speaker/microphone module, one handed operation, 2-transistor amplifier, centrifugally governed motor

Power req.                       3 x AA cell

Weight:                            380g

Dimensions:                     163 x 60 x 37mm

Made in:                           Germany

Hen's Teeth (10 rarest):     6


Homey HR-408 ĎThunderbirdsí Tape recorder, 1963

This is where it all began. My lifelong interest in gadgets started back in the early 1960s with crystal sets, transistor radios and eventually small tape recorders like this one. In fact the second tape recorder that I ever owned was this very model, though mine was badged Honeytone. Like so many Japanese electronics products from that time it appeared under a variety of different names and I have come across near identical machines labelled Acme, Benkson, Consul Deluxe, Exeter, International, Noam and Rubytone.

 

Little machines like this one have another association for me and I guess many others who grew up at around the same time. It was used as a prop in almost every episode of Gerry Andersonís sci-fi puppet series Thunderbirds, whirring away in the background on board the Thunderbird 5 space station, though it occasionally turned up in other locations. The scale is perfect and itís tough, reliable mechanism would have been ideal for the rigours of a film set, though I would like to think that the actual machine used was an International (Rescue) brand model.

 

The most distinctive feature is the posh-looking chrome-plated top panel, which sets it apart from its mostly plasticky contemporaries. Appearances can be deceptive, though; it is essentially a toy and only really capable of recording speech. Itís hopeless for music, and apart from anything else the three-inch reels only hold enough tape for around 10 Ė12 minutes of recording time. The reason sound quality is not very good (actually itís terribleÖ), is because it has a rim-drive tape mechanism.

 

Basically the reels are driven directly by a single motor. This tilts according to the mode (Play, Record, Rewind) selected by the rotary control knob on the right. The motor spindle presses against the rubber edge of the right hand capstan in Play and Record mode. A second rubber-edged idler wheel, in contact with the left hand capstan, gives the necessary speed increase and direction change for Rewind mode. Whilst it sounds like a simple and practical method the major disadvantage is that as tape winds from one reel to the other they alternately speed up and slow down, which in turn varies the speed at which the tape passes over the recording head. No only is it too slow and unsteady to be of any use for recoding music, it also means that tapes can only be played back on the machine they were made on, due to speed the speed variations and differences in head alignment. A four-transistor amplifier handles the recording and playback (through a two-inch speaker) and thereís a further cost-cutting measure, with a simple permanent magnet erase head. Itís mounted on a lever arm and comes into contact with the tape when the machine is in record mode.

 

To a youngster back then sound quality wasn't a big issue, and itís hard to relate now how the ability to record and play back sounds was a near magical experience.

 

What Happened To It?

Later variants of this model appeared but they were essentially the same inside. The chrome top plate was replaced by a plastic moulding, probably to make it look a bit more up to date and to reduce costs, but cosmetic revamps couldnít put off the einevitable. Rim drive reel-to-reel tape recorders like this one had all but disappeared by the late 1960s. They were rendered obsolete by the appearance of the Philips Compact Cassette format in 1963, though it took a few years before cassette recorder prices fell to pocket money levels. 

 

My original Honeytone machine probably failed within a couple of years of buying it and would have been dissected and stripped for parts soon afterwards. I bought my second machine twenty five years later, when I stumbled across one at a flea market, bringing those memories flooding back. I have been snapping them up ever since and to date more than a dozen have passed through my hands. Most of them were purchased from ebay sellers in the United States, especially in the early years when it was possible to pick them up for a few pounds, and postal charges were low. They were usually in poor condition but I became quite adept at fixing them up and would re-sell them, sometimes for a tidy profit.

 

There are probably not very many of them left now outside of collections. When they occasionally turn up on ebay they tend to be quite expensive, and since the majority are in the US the vastly increased shipping charges make them unaffordable. I still have four or five in my collection, plus a fair selection of spare parts. Iíve only kept the really nice ones, though I doubt that even the best examples would fetch more than £50.00, even on a good day, but they are all contributing to the rainy day and retirement funds. 


GIZMO GUIDE (Manual)

First seen:                         1963

Original Price                   £10.00?

Value Today?                   £50 0312

Features:                          2-track recording, 4-transistor amplifier, rim-drive mechanism, 75mm (3-in) reels, Play, Record, Rewind functions, permanent magnet erase, built-in speaker, detachable flexible carry handle, 3.5mm jacks for microphone and earphone, (both included)

Power req.                        2 x 1.5 volt C cells, 1 x 9v PP3

Weight:                             1.1kg

Dimensions:                      190 x 157 x 70mm

Made in:                           Japan

Hen's Teeth (10 rarest):     8


GIZMO GUIDE

First seen:                        1964

Original Price                   £20.00?

Value Today?                   £40.00

Features:                           Micro Pack Cassette tape recorder, Record/Play/Rewind functions, battery/level meter, variable speed, volume control, built-in speaker, rim-drive mechanism, microphone and earphone jack sockets, charger socket (when used with nicad batteries), leather carry case and strap

Power req.                        4 x AA cell

Weight:                             800g

Dimensions:                      162 x 93 x 34 mm

Made in:                           Japan

Hen's Teeth (10 rarest):     8


Fi-Cord 202 Portable Tape Recorder 1965

There is usually a fairly clear link between the size of a tape recorder and performance. Bigger is often better, for simple reasons like the space to use larger, more stable motors, more sophisticated drive mechanisms and speed control systems and thereís more room for the electronics, but there are exceptions. The Fi-Cord 202 is one of them, and launched in 1965, itís a compact, portable machine that can take reels up to 10cm (4-inches). It was squarely aimed at the broadcasters, semi pro users and enthusiasts and built to a very high standard in Scarborough by Erskine Laboratories for UK specialists Fi-Cord (short for Fidelity Recording). 

 

It had an impressive looking specification; frequency response was a claimed 50 Ė 12kHz, thereís automatic recording level, two recording speeds (3.75 & 7.5 ips), and it features a level meter and tape counter, long battery life and easily accessible controls. The design is very straightforward, the two chunky-looking Ďfeetí are actually the battery holders, each containing 7 AA cells. One is for the motors, the other for the electronics and splitting the supply in this way helps extend running time. The controls, whilst simple, are a bit convoluted and a fair amount of button pushing and knob turning is involved in switching from one mode to another.

 

Design and build quality is of a high order. The tape drive and deck mechanisms are all very sturdy and made to last. This example came from ebay a few years ago and thanks to it being wrongly categorised, poorly described and one blurry photograph there was no competition and it cost me just £10.00, plus postage. It was a bit of a gamble, though and it looked really scruffy in the picture but it was mostly just grime and as you can see it has scrubbed up really well. Sadly itís a non-runner Ė completely dead Ė but it looks like a fairly simple power supply problem, probably nothing more than dodgy battery contacts, but it will have to wait its turn and is fairly low down on my to-do list.   

 

What Happened To It?

The Fi-Cord 220 was the sort of machine that should have appealed to radio reporters of the day but this market was fairly small and had already been largely sewn up by the likes of Uher with its classic Report model. It also suffered from relatively short recording time, thanks to the small reel size and it had a reputation for wow and flutter (speed variation) when used on the move. It seems that it never really caught on with major broadcasters like the BBC, but it managed to generate a loyal following during itís comparatively short production run and is still keenly sought after by collectors of high-end machines.

 

They are not especially rare and 220s turn up now and again on ebay but prices can get a bit silly for really fine specimens. Donít be put off though; a cheapo fixer-upper could be a worthwhile investment for a screwdriver wielding collector, provided itís mostly intact and in reasonably good shape. Theyíre easy to work on too, most electronic parts are still available and everything is easily get-attable; even the PCB is mounted on a pair of hinges so changing a drive belt is a doddle. All I have to do now is practice what I preach and sort this one out...


GIZMO GUIDE

First seen:                        1965

Original Price                   £69 69s (69 Guineas)

Value Today?                   £50 0112

Features:                          capstan-drive, Play/FF, 2-speed (3.75 & 7.5 ips), level meter, tape counter, vol, mic, eph, rem, carry handle, automatic recording level control, internal 8 transistor amplifier & 3.5inch speaker

Power req.                        14 x AA cells or 12VDC external adaptor

Weight:                             2.5kg

Dimensions:                      225 x 125 x 165 mm

Made in:                           Britain

Hen's Teeth (10 rarest):     7


Philips PM85 Pocket Memo Tape Recorder 1967

I doubt that many people would give this little pocket Minicassette tape recorder more than a second glance.  It looks like the sort of thing that until recently you could have picked up in any high street stationers or electronics store for around £25. Even at a third or even a fourth glance its appearance is completely unremarkable, except that it was the very first one of its kind, and is now more than 40 years old, which means it will soon qualify as an antique.

 

The PM85 LFH0085, to give it its full name, was launched way back in 1967, before man walked on the Moon and only four years after the original Philips Compact Cassette first appeared. The fact that Minicassette recorders are still available and modern versions look pretty much the same as this one says all that you need to know about the original design. Philips clearly got it right first time, the Minicassette format has proved to be extremely durable and itís only within the last few years that solid-state recording devices have made inroads into the portable audio recording market. 

 

Very little has changed over the years and 40 year old cassettes still play in modern machines, but there have been a few refinements under the bonnet. Thatís immediately obvious when you pick it up, it weighs two or three times as much as a contemporary machine, and with the lid off itís easy to see why. Itís built like a watch, virtually all of the major components, apart from the case, are made of metal, and the only things that are going to wear out or decay is a rubber drive belt. The controls and switches on this example still feel like new, with smooth positive actions and satisfying clicks. It also still works, and why wouldnít it? With a simple 7-transistor amplifier and near bullet proof mechanics there is almost nothing to go wrong. Another thing that hasnít changed much over the years is sound quality. It was then, and is now fairly poor, but thatís hardly a problem for a recording device that is designed only to capture speech

 

What Happened To It?

One of the reasons that the Minicassette format has survived so long is that the pocket dictation machine market has always been fairly small. It works as well as it needs to and technologies that can do the job better and cheaper have been slow to appear. Over the years there have been several attempts to move the Minicassette into music recording but the quality has never been good enough. Nor has it been possible to stretch recording times to more than 30 minutes or so, and this was only possible by drastically reducing tape speed, which resulted in even worse quality, so it was never going to happen.

 

The Minicassette and magnetic tape recording in general is now virtually dead, but it not just because of its solid state and digital replacements. Many mobile phones and MP3 players also have a recording or memo taking capability, but more significantly for this type of product, there has been a seismic shift in office culture. Pocket dictating machines have been rendered almost obsolete. Itís a technology that belonged to a bygone era of middle and senior managers who lacked the ability the type, a time of secretaries, typing pools and typewriters.

 

But back to this particular PM85, which Ė almost needless to say Ė came from ebay, and cost just 99 pence. This really was an exceptionally lucky find as it seems to have slipped below my fellow collectorís radars. I have seen almost identical models, in as good cosmetic condition as this one and complete with their original boxes sell for upwards of £50. It was sold as not working but the fault was correctly described as a broken drive belt. Fixing it proved to be a little more challenging than expected. Just getting to it involved dismantling large portions of the mechanism, and the belt hadnít just broken, it had turned to a sticky goop. The residue had to be carefully cleaned from the capstans and pulleys Ė a really nasty job -- but once that was done, and with a dab or two of oil and grease it was back up and running.

 

When new they were quite pricey, and it was always a specialist market, so they are fairly scarce but Iím guessing the survival rate was quite high as their owners would have taken good care of them. They do turn up on ebay from time to time but as my experience shows itís pot luck how much youíll have to pay, but itís the first of the breed and for any serious collector of tape recorders, itís a box that just has to be ticked. 


GIZMO GUIDE

First seen:                        1967

Original Price                   £100  

Value Today?                   £25 0212

Features:                          Minicassette dictation machine, record, pause, playback, fast wind functions, volume, built in 25mm speaker

Power req.                        1 x 9volt PP3

Weight:                             300g

Dimensions:                     123 x 64 x 34mm

Made in:                            Austria

Hen's Teeth (10 rarest):      5


Parrot RSR-423 ĎBookí Tape Recorder, 1965?

This is one of the more unusual miniature tape recorders in my collection. Itís the Parrot RSR-423 and if you havenít already done so, hover your mouse over the picture to see what itís all about. Thatís right, itís a tape recorder, cunningly disguised as a book. At first glance it seems like a handy gadget for spies, and Iím pretty sure it was inspired by all those 60ís secret agent movies and TV series, but in practice itís next to useless for serious covert recording. There are two problems; the first is that even with a full spool of tape, recording time is only around 10 minutes, and second, the microphone is Ďhard wiredí and meant to sit inside the case so with the lid shut the only thing itís going to pick up is the whine from the drive motor.

 

Basically itís a toy and as with all rim drive models of that era the sound quality is terrible, but letís not get too critical. Machines like this were a lot of fun for kids and they probably didnít cost more than a few pounds. Itís really easy to use. There are just two controls, a rotary knob for tape transport (Stop, Play, Record, Rewind) and a thumbwheel for the volume. Rim Drive machines employ a single motor; the extended spindles press against the feed and take-up reel rims. The problem with this arrangement is that speed the tape passes the head varies as the tape moves from one reel to the other. Itís okay if the recording is played back on the machine that made it but if itís played on a constant-speed capstan drive tape recorder it can sound a little weird.

 

Itís solidly built, though the Ďhingeí for the lid, which is just the PVC book cover, has a tendency to crack over time. This one has survived but Iím reluctant to open it up more than is strictly necessary. We wonít dwell too long on performance, suffice it to say itíll record speech but anything more demanding has a tendency to highlight is shortcomingsÖ Incidentally, like most machines of this type it uses a tiny permanent magnet to erase a recording, before a new one is made. This isnít especially efficient and if you listen carefully you can sometimes hear previous recordings in the mush.

 

What Happened To It?

I have given up counting but I reckon there several hundred different miniature (3-inch reel or smaller) tape recorders produced during the sixties. The vast majority of them, like this one fell into the novelty or toy category, there were a few serious machines, intended for dictation and so on. By the end of the 60s they had all but disappeared, killed off by the runaway success of the Compact Cassette, which offered vastly superior recording quality and longer recording times, and eventually, low prices.

 

These little machines were made in quite large numbers but relatively few of them have survived and models like this one, which probably didnít sell very well, have become increasingly rare. I bought a couple of them several years ago, during the early days of ebay and although I canít remember how much I paid, I doubt that it was more than £5.00. They do turn up from time to time but I havenít seen one in as good a condition as this one for a very long time.


GIZMO GUIDE

First seen:                        1965?

Original Price                   £5.00

Value Today?                   £50.00 0112

Features:                          Mono two-track, magnetic erase, record, play, fast forward, volume

Power req.                       2 x C cells, 1 x 9v PP3

Weight:                            227 x 158 x 42mm 

Dimensions:                     820g

Made in:                          Japan

Hen's Teeth (10 rarest):    7


Tokai TR-45 Miniature Tape Recorder, 1965?

The Tokai TR-45 has to be one of the rarest of the miniature reel-to-reel tape recorders from the 1960s. Iíve dubbed these little machines ĎSpycordersí, as they made frequent appearances in the spy movies and TV series of the day, though in reality they would have been of little use to secret agents or for covert recording and many of them were little more than toys or novelties. The Tokai TR-45 was a bit different, though, and it really does look the part, being one of the cutest little machines around. It uses smaller than normal 65mm (2.5-inch) reels and unlike most mini tape recorders from that period itís housed in a tough, crackle-finish metal case.

 

It follows the usual pattern of a simple rim-drive mechanism, though again itís a little out of the ordinary as it has a belt-drive to the motor. As you may know the big problem with rim-drive, where the reels are turned by direct contact with a spindle connected to the motor, is the speed variation as the tape passes from one reel to the other. This means that  tapes only play back at the correct speed on the machine the recording was made. The TR-45 is no different in that respect and the sound quality is pretty dire, just about okay for speech, and with only around 7 or 8 minutes running time theyíre not much use for anything except maybe some brief dictation, which is probably what this model was intended for. Donít let that put you off, though, these are fantastic little gadgets, beautifully made, terrific fun to play with and hugely nostalgic, especially if Ė like me -- you remember them from the first time around!

 

It has just two simple transport controls, a rocker switch for selecting play or rewind, and button for record mode. Thereís a thumbwheel for the volume and two jack sockets for earphone and microphone. The 50mm (2-inch) speaker is on the underside, mounted on the hinged cover for the battery compartment, which houses three AA cells.

 

What Happened To It?

Reel-to-reel tape recorders, which first appeared in the late 1940s lasted well into the 70s but their fate was sealed by the Compact Cassette. It killed machines like this one stone dead; cassette recorders could be made smaller, cheaper, a lot easier to use and with vastly superior performance.

 

I canít be absolutely sure about the date but I donít think 1965 is too far off the mark, either way I doubt that many TR-45s were sold.  Iíve only come across one other example in the last few years and thereís no mention of them in the usual web archives, though it may well have sold under different names, as was the custom of the time.

 

This one is a real survivor and an unexpected ebay bargain. I thought one or more of the growing number of collectors would pitch for it and it would fetch a fancy price but it slipped under the radar. In the end there was only one other bidder and it was all mine for a very reasonable £10.00. It has been very well looked after and is in excellent condition. It actually worked straight out of the box, though it worked a whole lot better Ė or at least as well as it could -- after a thorough clean and oil change. A most welcome addition to any collection of miniature tape recorders and its comparative rarity means that it has to be a good investment.


GIZMO GUIDE

First seen:                        1965?

Original Price                   £10?

Value Today?                   £30 1111

Features:                          Two-track recording, rim-drive, 65mm reels, Play, Record, Rewind, volume, ear & mic jack sockets

Power req.                       3 x AA

Weight:                            600g

Dimensions:                     155 x 80 x 53mm

Made in:                          Japan

Hen's Teeth (10 rarest):    8


Electron 52D Tape Recorder 1969

No, you are not seeing double, the mini tape recorder on the left is a tiny Japanese machine called a Tinico, dating from around 1963 and the one on the right is an equally tiny tape recorder, called an Electron 52D, but it was made in the late sixties, in the former Soviet Union. If they look very similar that's because they are; in fact the Electron is a near identical copy of the Tinico.

 

The differences, such as they are, are fairly minor in nature. The Electron's case has squarer edges, it has a 2.5mm instead of a 3.5mm jack socket, the printed circuit board uses different components, there's the addition of a small output transformer, and the wiring inside the Electron is a lot neater. In fact the only thing that really distinguishes the two is that the Electron works better. Clearly whoever designed it had the benefit of hindsight and managed to iron out some of the problems with the Tinico's fiddly mechanics and terrible speed stability. The Electron is still a bit wobbly but it is useable as a voice recorder!

 

It's interesting to speculate on this machine's origins and I would dearly like to believe it was a product of Cold war, Soviet era espionage. It's certainly small enough - not much larger than a pack of cigarettes -- but I really cannot believe any serious spook would consider using one of these to make covert recordings; there were plenty of better machines available on both sides of the Iron Curtain. Apart from anything else the titchy 45mm (1.75-inch) reels only hold enough tape for around 10 to 15 minutes worth of recording. My guess is that like the Tinico it was intended as a low-cost dictation machine and was probably made under licence in the USSR. The similarities are just too numerous to make it a simple knock-off, though such things did occur and there are examples of western products, particularly cameras, being ruthlessly copied, so if anyone can shed any light on its manufacturing history I would be very interested to hear from them. 

 

What Happened To It?

Without knowing how many were produced, and for how long it's difficult to say how common they are but my feeling is that it wasn't around for very long and is probably quite rare, I've certainly never seen one on ebay or other on-line collections.

 

This machine came to me courtesy of Dustygizmos reader Mikhail Samoylenko, who tells me it is probably one of only a tiny handful of machines outside of Russia. It was given to him some time ago and was probably made in 1969 in Poltava, central Ukraine. Like many of the mini recorders that I collect it has appeared on the sliver screen, albeit the small one. It played a minor role in a 1970's Russian TV series about a WW2 spy, called Seventeen Months of Spring - there's a screen grab here.

 

Apparently this particular Electron once belonged to a medical school and the tape it came with contains a recording of an autopsy, which lends credence to the tape recorder's intended role as dictating machine. I doubt very much I'll be seeing another one of these anytime soon but if anyone else out there has one, get in touch and we'll form a very exclusive owners club...


GIZMO GUIDE

First seen:                        1969?

Original Price                   £ unknown

Value Today?                   £150 1111

Features:                          Play, Record, Rewind Stop buttons, headphone/microphone jack

Power req.                        2 x AA cells, 1 x 9volt PP3

Weight:                             0.3kg

Dimensions:                     160 x 60 x 45mm

Made in:                           Former Soviet Union

Hen's Teeth (10 rarest):  9.5


ReVox A77 Mk II Reel to Reel Tape Recorder 1969

Words like tank, battleship and brick outhouse are frequently used to describe ReVox tape recorders, and who am I to argue? This is Ė in my humble opinion Ė one of the finest home reel to reel tape recorders ever made, and it really is built to last. This one, which I have owned for the better part of 20 years still works perfectly and in all that time the only parts I have had to change are a couple of drive belts and light bulbs.

 

The days of reel-to-reel tape recorders are long gone and if you want to record audio these days you will probably end up using a computer, or some sort of digital device where the only moving parts are the on/off switch. Thatís a shame, weíve lost something, thereís nothing quite like the sight of a big reel-to-reel tape recorder doing its thing, fast winding a pair of ten inch metal reels. Itís awesome and would probably be banned under todayís health and safety legislation. But more importantly, a good reelĖto-reel setup really does sound better than most digital recording systems. I accept thatís open to debate, but in my experience the contrary view is most often expressed by those who have never heard a decent analogue system at full blast.

 

What is not in dispute is the ReVox A77 is a masterful blend of mechanics and electronics. Inside the wood veneered box itís full of motors, solenoids and chunky lumps of metal spinning or flying back and forth. Itís packed to the gunwales with superbly well-made printed circuit boards sporting lots of old fashioned transistors and discrete components, not a microchip in sight. Switch it on and it comes alive with whirring motors and dancing VU meters, it even smells better than a digital recording device, a heady mix of oil, hot transformers and wood polish. Okay, enough, but trust me, a reel-to-reel tape recorder is a whole lot more interesting and fun to use than any digital box of tricks.

 

What Happened to it?

I was amazed to learn that more than 40,000 A77s were made in its first year of production. It was incredibly successful and it went on to sport several updates Ė mine is a Mk II Ė plus numerous home and professional variants. It was eventually superseded by the much more sophisticated B77 in 1978, but by that time the tape cassette was firmly rooted in almost all areas of home audio and although big tape recorders lingered on well into the 1980s, the world had moved on.

 

In spite of the vast numbers made my guess is that most of them ended up in skips, thrown out by unthinking owners, keen to reclaim space or move on to more up to date recording technologies. In any event reel to reel recorders could never compete with cassette tape as a pre-recorded medium so those that remain are mostly now in the hands of enthusiasts. Itís a really practical collectible though, blank and pre-recorded tapes are readily available, and you can easily hook it up to a modern hi-fi system to record and replay.

 

Theyíre not hard to come by either and most weeks youíll find one or two on ebay. Considering their original price Ė and donít forget this was high-end equipment -- there are some real bargains to be had. A good example can easily fetch £300 or more; £150 to £200 should buy you a shabby runner. However, this is not a purchase for the unwary and whilst I began by saying they were very well built, there is a lot that can go wrong and they really do benefit from an occasional service as a fair number of parts do wear out. There are plenty of resources on the web but they can be very expensive to repair so if you donít have a good working knowledge of what makes these beasts tick, and know how to source vintage spares it probably safer to buy one from a dealer.


GIZMO GUIDE

First seen:                         1969

Original Price                   £800

Value Today?                   £200 1011

Features:                          4-track stereo, stereo, 3-motor tape drive, speeds 3.75 and 7.5 ips or 7.5 and 15 ips, up to 10.5 inch diameter reels, frequency response at 7.5 ips: 30 Hz  - 20 kHz +2 /-3 dB, wow & flutter at 7.5 ips less than 0.08%

Power req.                        100,120,140,200, 220,240 VAC, 50/60 Hz

Weight:                             17 kg

Dimensions:                     (452 x 414 x 207 mm

Made in:                           Switzerland

Hen's Teeth (10 rarest):    4


Craig Panorama 212 Tape Recorder, 1966

I suspect that most people probably wouldnít give this rather ordinary looking 60s battery-powered reel-to-reel tape recorder a second glance but for me it ranks as one of the most significant machines of itís day. It has nothing to do with technical sophistication or performance, both of which are unremarkable. No, itís the association with the sixties and seventies TV series Mission Impossible. This machine appeared in around a third of the later episodes, featuring Peter Graves and Leonard Nimoy; famously disappearing in a cloud of smoke at the end of the opening sequence after Jim Phelps had been briefed; you know the catchphrase, all together now: ĎThis tape will self-destruct in five secondsÖí.

 

I have been after one for ages; theyíre relatively common in the US and prices tend to be quite low but the shipping costs to the UK can be exorbitant. You donít see them very often here, though and I suspect that relatively few were sold on this side of the pond. The US model is mains-powered and the cost of adapting them for European mains voltages was probably prohibitive.

 

Itís a classic and instantly recognisable design with the chunky ĎTí bar transport control. Other points of interest include the capstan drive mechanism, which ensures a fair degree of speed accuracy. Itís a two-speed model, the actual speed change is quite crude, you have to unscrew a fat capstan roller (just behind the tape reels) and screw it on to the thinner capstan roller, next to the pinch wheel. The supplied mike has a remote start/stop switch and it has both fast forward and rewind transport modes (only the better quality machines of the day had fast-forwardÖ). 

 

What Happened To It?

The 212 and its numerous reel-to-reel cousins were killed off by the Compact Cassette, which by the late 1960s had all but taken over the home tape recorder market in Europe and Japan. Models like this one limped on until the early 1970s, probably because Cassettes were slower to take off in the US. At the time the 8-Track cartridge was still going strong, bolstered by US car manufacturers who didnít much care for the Ďsissyí European Cassette format.

 

I snagged this one for a fiver on ebay UK and Iím fairly sure itís a Euro model as it has a socket for a DC adaptor (for portable use itís powered by 6 C-cells). The condition is very good indeed and after a clean up and a spot of grease and oil in the right places it runs very well. Audio quality is not too bad at all, obviously not a patch on modern equipment but for what it is, and given that itís more than 40 years old, itís pretty good. As you can see it came with the original microphone but sadly no instructions or box, but for a fiver, Iím definitely not complaining. 


GIZMO GUIDE

First seen:                         1966?

Original Price                   £20?

Value Today?                   £20 1011

Features:                          2-speed, two track (mono) capstan drive, 7 transistor, remote mic., 3/3.5-inch reels, folding carry handle

Power req.                       6 x C cell/9-volt DC adaptor

Weight:                            1.9kg

Dimensions:                     200 x 250 x 80mm (whd)

Made in:                          Japan

Hen's Teeth (10 rarest):    5


Mohawk Chief Tape Recorder 1962?

Itís hard to believe that this 1.2kg metal box, only a little smaller than a house brick, was once billed as the Ďworldís smallest portable tape recorderí. I believe this particular model may be very rare indeed; itís the Mohawk Chief, a transistorised version of the Mohawk Midget, which first appeared in the early 1950s. The original models used tiny valves in the built-in amplifier. This one, which is based on the same mechanical chassis, has a small two-transistor amplifier module and speaker, fitted into the space previously occupied by a 22 volt ĎHTí battery. I canít be sure about the exact date it was launched because I havnít been able to find any references to the Chief model, but I can make a fairly good guess, based on the germanium transistors and other components used in the amp, which almost certainly date from the early 60s.

 

This machine and its ilk were essentially office dictating machines and one of the most unusual features is the metal tape cartridge. Itís a tandem design, with one reel stacked on top of the other, and like a compact cassette itís two-sided and can be flipped over; each side lasts for around 45 minutes. Thereís no rewind function, instead you have to unlatch a small handle on the hinged lid and crank away until you get to the end.

 

Incidentally, contemporary adverts for this machine suggest it could be used for covert recording or surveillance and a microphone, built into a watch was offered as an optional extra. This one, which I purchased on ebay recently for £10 came with the original hand-held mike, which has a remote start/stop function. It also has the original leather carry case, so it was a real find. I havenít had a chance to test it yet, more research will have to be carried out on the power requirements, early transistors are really easy to blow so I donít want to take any chances. Mechanically and cosmetically it is in very good condition and apart from a perished drive belt it looks as though it should run without too many problems.

 

What Happened to it?

I am guessing that the Chief didnít last much beyond the mid 1960s. This transistor model was almost certainly a last ditch response by Mohawk to keep the brand and format alive, following the launch of the Compact Cassette in 1963. The cheap and cheerful tape cassette was an almost instant success and heavy old-fashioned lumps like this, with their expensive tape cartridges and over-engineered mechanisms were doomed.

 

I have read that fewer than 10,000 Mohawk machines were sold, which makes them quite rare and this is the first transistor model Iíve come across so itís well into Henís Teeth territory, Sadly I donít think itís going to make me rich; collecting old miniature tape recorders is still a bit of a niche activity, which is good for me as there are still bargains to be had, and long may it stay that way so I urge you to collect something elseÖ


 

GIZMO GUIDE

First seen:                         1962

Original Price                    £200

Value Today?                    £50 - £250 0911

Features:                          capstan-drive, Play, manual rewind, volume, microphone, earphone, carry case

Power req.                        2 x 1.5 volt cells

Weight:                             1.2kg

Dimensions:                      225 x 105 x 60mm

Made in:                           USA

Hen's Teeth (10 rarest):     8


Gramdeck Tape Recorder, 1959 (Manual)

I have been after one of these for ages; itís the Gramdeck, a truly bizarre gadget manufactured in the UK from around 1959 by Andrew Merryfield Ltd of Wrightís Lane Kensington. Itís ingenious, you mount the contraption on the spindle of your record player turntable and hey-presto, you have a tape recorder! A rotating disc on the underside spins with the turntable and drives the capstan and take-up spool via a belt. A lead from the tape head plugs into a coaxial socket on the companion pre-amplifier, which in turn connects to an amplifier. It is a wonderfully Heath-Robinson affair, but beautifully built, based on a sturdy die-cast metal base and clearly meant to survive nuclear attack.

 

The pre-amp is a sight to behold as well. Itís built inside what appears to be a small brown biscuit tin, but the really interesting thing about it is that is one of the very first consumer electronics products made in the UK to use transistors, three Ediswan XB102s, which look like tiny black top hats.

 

Setting it up is quite a palaver and you have to glue or screw a mounting pillar to your record player, to stop it spinning round. Once in place, and with the tape threaded Ė you need three hands for this Ė you have to spin up the record player then when you reckon itís going fast enough, flip a lever to engage the pressure roller/pinch wheel to start the tape moving. Rewinding involves more faffing around, and fitting a small handle with a hole in it (for your finger) to the spool, then you have to twiddle furiously. The instructions wax lyrical about the possibilities of making recordings from the wireless or a microphone, it even delves into the intricacies of editing, brilliant stuff!

 

What Happened To It?

Alas the Gramdeck had only a relatively short life as proper reel-to-reel tape recorders became more affordable. I am not sure when it finally disappeared but by the mid 1960s the Compact Cassette had started to take over the home recording market rendering products like the Gramdeck virtually obsolete (not that there were many...). Neverthless, quite a few were made, and a surprising number of them seem to have survived.

 

I found this Gramdeck on ebay a few weeks ago, it cost me a very reasonable £15, plus postage; they usually sell for quite a bit more so this was a real bargain. Itís virtually complete, and in fantastic condition, only the mounting pillar is missing Ė presumably still attached to a record player somewhere, but itís easy enough to cobble up a replacement. The pre-amp was in its original box, another bonus, and everything works; it even came with the original sales leaflet and a copy of the instructions, which you can see in the manuals archive. 


 

GIZMO GUIDE

First seen:                        1959

Original Price                   £13.12s 0d (£13.60)

Value Today?                   £30 0811

Features:                          Record from radio or microphone, 4 speed (7.5, 4.33, 3.2 16 inches per second, dependent on turntable speed Ė 78, 45, 33.3 & 16.6rpm), up to 5-inch spool size, wow and flutter 0.15%, record replay 60 Ė 10,000cps (cycles per second = Hz in new money)

Power req.                        9 volt Ever Ready PP9

Weight:                             0.7 kg (preamp 0.6kg ex battery)

Dimensions:                     320 x 170 x 48 mm  (preamp 150 x 110 x 115mm)

Made in:                           England

Hen's Teeth (10 rarest):     8


Craig TR-408 Miniature Tape Recorder

Made in Japan by Sanyo, this miniature reel-to-reel tape recorder appears under a number of guises, including Channel Master. Itís a classic 60s ĎSpycorderí and a veteran of several appearances in sixties movies and TV shows. The small compact design is just the job for a spot of covert recording and the 2.5-inch reels hold enough tape for around 15 Ė 20 minutes worth of recording. It uses a simple rim-drive mechanism, so speed stability is not that good, but provided recordings are played back on the machine theyíre made on, itís hardly noticeable, if at all if itís only used to record speech.

 

The controls are very simple, sliding switches on the side turn the single drive motor on and off, and select forward and rewind modes. A switch on the front sets record or playback mode and there are thumbwheels on the side and top for controlling volume and replay speed. Connections to the outside world are via a row of three minijacks for microphone (with remote stop function) and an earphone, and it has its own built in 2-inch speaker. As usual on machines of this type there is no erase head, as such, instead a small permanent magnet swings in to wipe the tape when it is in record mode.

 

These little machines are superbly well built, but the innards are densely packed and a nightmare to fix if thereís been a major fault. One very common problem is corrosion due to leaky batteries, and this one hasnít escaped Scott-free, though the damage was relatively minor, and easily fixed. Apart from that all this one needed was a few drops of oil and light grease on the hubs, motor bearings and selector mechanism and it was up and running. Normally the electrolytic capacitors on the amplifier board need replacing, though unusually on this one they were all okay.

 

What Happened to it?

Although the TR408 was a cut above the usual 60s mini tape recorder it was still a bit of a toy and not really up to serious recording. Nevertheless, it was okay for speech and a lot were sold to US armed forces personnel, for keeping in touch with the folks back home. Even so, tiny, fiddly reel-to-reel tapes just couldnít compete with the compact cassette, which, was really starting to take off by the late 60s. Not many of these machines have survived and good examples are very collectible indeed. This one, bought on ebay for £10 from a US seller was a real find as it also came with its original leather carry case and microphone, both of them in good condition. If you see a really clean one in its original box grab it!

 


GIZMO GUIDE

First seen:                        1969

Original Price                   £25

Value Today?                   £50 0711

Features:                          2.5 inch reels, rim drive, Play/Rew, variable speed, vol, mic, eph, rem, carry handle, carry case

Power req.                       4 x AA

Weight:                             0.8kg

Dimensions:                     145 x 95 x 55mm

Made in:                           Japan

Henís Teeth (10 rarest):    6


Fi-Cord 101 Tape Recorder, 1963

Fi-Cord or Fidelity Recording was a UK company, formed after the Second World War that built up a business producing high-end tape recorders, counting the BBC amongst it customers. The Fi-Cord 101, which we have here, is actually made in Switzerland and is a compact dictating machine, hence the unusually complex design, high standard of construction and materials. It really is very small, measuring just 150 x 85 x 43mm or just a shade larger than a transistor radio of the time.

 

Itís a fine piece of engineering, using tiny 2-inch reels, driven by a sophisticated capstan mechanism, powered by a precision speed-governed motor, coupled to the deck by a single belt. The only small concession to economy is a permanent magnet erase head; otherwise itís a really high quality design, built on an all-metal chassis. Power comes from a pair or AA cells, which is quite unusual on a device that old since, as I recall, they were quite a new thing back in the early 60s. It has an impressive array of features, including the built-in microphone and speaker (the cylindrical object below the take-up reel, it also has a simple mechanical counter and the clever push-button controls provide both fast forward and rewind functions, though theyíre quite tricky to master and avoid spewing tape all over the place.

 

What Happened To It?

During the early 1960s the highly specialised dictating machine market rapidly embraced the much more convenient compact cassette, and later the micro-cassette, and ingenious as the 101 was, it just couldnít compete with the fiddle and fuss-free tape format. By the end of the sixties tiny open reel to reel machines like this had all but disappeared

 

This one came from ebay and it was a real bargain at £25, a fraction of what I would have expected it to sell for Ė they are quite rare, especially in good condition and I have seen them going for more than £100. This one also came with its original leather carry case and some spare tapes, all of which are in as-new condition. The icing on the cake is the fact that it still works, though with a tape speed of 1 7/8th inch per second audio quality is only suitable for speech and the volume level through the Ďspeakerí is very low Ė itís meant to be used with headphones. Apart form a simple clean up it worked straight out of the box, and shows every sign of being good for another 40 years at least.


GIZMO GUIDE

First seen:                         1963

Original Price                   £60

Value Today?                   £100 0611

Features:                          Record, Replay, Fast Forward, Rewind, tape counter, built-in microphone and speaker, 2-inch spools 1/4-inch tape running at 1 7/8th inch per second

Power req.                        2 x AA cells

Weight:                             0.7kg

Dimensions:                     150 x 85 x 43mm

Made in:                            Switzerland

Henís Teeth (10 rarest):   8


Craig TR-408 Miniature Tape Recorder

Made in Japan by Sanyo, this miniature reel-to-reel tape recorder appears under a number of guises, including Channel Master. Itís a classic 60s ĎSpycorderí and a veteran of several appearances in sixties movies and TV shows. The small compact design is just the job for a spot of covert recording and the 2.5-inch reels hold enough tape for around 15 Ė 20 minutes worth of recording. It uses a simple rim-drive mechanism, so speed stability is not that good, but provided recordings are played back on the machine theyíre made on, itís hardly noticeable, if at all if itís only used to record speech.

 

The controls are very simple, sliding switches on the side turn the single drive motor on and off, and select forward and rewind modes. A switch on the front sets record or playback mode and there are thumbwheels on the side and top for controlling volume and replay speed. Connections to the outside world are via a row of three minijacks for microphone (with remote stop function) and an earphone, and it has its own built in 2-inch speaker. As usual on machines of this type there is no erase head, as such, instead a small permanent magnet swings in to wipe the tape when it is in record mode.

 

These little machines are superbly well built, but the innards are densely packed and a nightmare to fix if thereís been a major fault. One very common problem is corrosion due to leaky batteries, and this one hasnít escaped Scott-free, though the damage was relatively minor, and easily fixed. Apart from that all this one needed was a few drops of oil and light grease on the hubs, motor bearings and selector mechanism and it was up and running. Normally the electrolytic capacitors on the amplifier board need replacing, though unusually on this one they were all okay.

 

What Happened to it?

Although the TR408 was a cut above the usual 60s mini tape recorder it was still a bit of a toy and not really up to serious recording. Nevertheless, it was okay for speech and a lot were sold to US armed forces personnel, for keeping in touch with the folks back home. Even so, tiny, fiddly reel-to-reel tapes just couldnít compete with the compact cassette, which, was really starting to take off by the late 60s. Not many of these machines have survived and good examples are very collectible indeed. This one, bought on ebay for £10 from a US seller was a real find as it also came with its original leather carry case and microphone, both of them in good condition. If you see a really clean one in its original box grab it!


GIZMO GUIDE

First seen:                        1969

Original Price                   £25

Value Today?                   £50 0511

Features:                          2.5 inch reels, rim drive, Play/Rew, variable speed, vol, mic, eph, rem, carry handle, carry case

Power req.                       4 x AA

Weight:                             0.8kg

Dimensions:                     145 x 95 x 55mm

Made in:                           Japan

Henís Teeth (10 rarest):    6

 


Tinico Tape Recorder 1963?

If youíve had a look around the Dustygizmos site you may have noticed that I have a bit of a thing going for miniature tape recorders, in particular ones that have appeared in TV shows Ė like the classic Mission Impossible -- and various spy movies.

 

Iím not aware of the Tinico ever appearing on the big (or small screen) but that does nothing to diminish my admiration for this remarkable little gadget. Itís quite possibly the smallest reel-to-reel tape recorder ever to go into production. Yes, there were even smaller machines but these were never available to the public Ė real spy stuff -- or they were toys, dummies or props that didnít work.

 

To give you an idea of how small it is thatís an ordinary matchbox next to it, and the specially made reels containing standard 1/4-inch tape, are just 4.5cm across. The machine is only 16cm long and it fits comfortably into the palm of your hand. It uses a simple rim-drive mechanism so recording quality isnít very good, in fact itís piss-poor, but it could be used as a dictating machine, or for covert recording and there is enough tape to last for around 20 Ė 30 minutes. I havenít been able to find any significant references to it so if anyone knows more about its origins or exact age I would be very pleased to hear from you.

 

The mechanism is push-button controlled Ė quite sophisticated for the time -- and it is powered by 2 AA cells and a 9-volt battery. Thereís not enough room for a speaker (see the Star-Lite Pocket Mate variant), and the simple 2-transistor amplifier is used to drive an earphone; there is no volume control. The same 3.5mm minijack socket is also used for a microphone when recording. The tape transport functions are Play/Record and Rewind, a simple permanent magnet is used to erase the tape before recording; this swings into contact with the tape when the recording button is pressed.

 

I donít think it was in production for very long and these machines are extremely rare. I have been after one for several years and they only come up on ebay once or twice a year, which is where I bought this one. I paid what I consider to be a very fair price for it (around £75 with shipping); on a good day with two or more determined bidders it might have fetched twice as much.

 

It was sold as-seen and had a couple of small faults but they didnít take too long to fix and after a quick oil change it was up and running. Cosmetically it is in excellent condition and apart from some slight wear on the name badge on the transparent cover it looks like new.

 

What Happened to it?

By the late 1960s reel to reel tape recorders had started to disappear as the Compact Cassette, introduced by Philips in 1963, gained its foothold in the home recording market. At the time miniature tape recorders were mostly either high quality dictating machines, or toys; this one is somewhere in between but the lack of a speaker and relatively poor recording quality almost certainly limited its appeal at the time.

 

Tiny tape recorders live on in the shape of micro-cassette dictating machines, though these are gradually being replaced by digital voice recorders, but no matter how small or clever they become, they canít even begin to compete with the quirky and erratic charm of little machines like these and I doubt very much that many of them will still be working in 40 years time.

Update.

I am indebted to Dustygizmos reader Mikhail Samoylenko for sending me details of the Electron 52D, which dates from around 1969 and appears to be a very close, if not near identical copy of the Tinico


GIZMO GUIDE

First seen:                         1963?

Original Price                   £20 (a complete guess)

Value Today?                   £100 0411

Features:                          Play, Record, Rewind Stop buttons, headphone/microphone jack
Power req.                        2 x AA cells, 1 x 9volt PP3

Weight:                             0.3kg

Dimensions:                      160 x 60 x 65mm

Made in:                            Japan

Henís Teeth (10 rarest):     9


Kyoto S600 8-Track Player 1970?

I always remember my old mate Mick, back in the mid 1970s, during a heated debate over the virtues of 8-track versus compact cassette, telling me that the quarter-inch tape inside the cartridges must give a Ďbiggerí sound than the 1/8th inch tape in compact cassettes. All I knew is the damn things never lasted more than half a dozen plays, which is why I quickly gave up on the format.

 

The natural home for the 8-track player was in the dashboard of a car but a few, like this Kyoto S600 were designed for home use, and the slightly kinder environment did mean the tapes lasted a little longer, but not muchÖ

 

This player is about as basic as they come with just the standard track change button, four track indicator lamps, volume, tone and balance controls. It is mains powered and the only other connections to the outside world is a headphone jack on the front, and two phono sockets on the back, for connection to a pair of small speakers. Thereís no on/off switch, pushing a cartridge into the slot turns it on. Itís housed in a real wood case (well, laminated chipboard...) and a little label on the back boasts 12 transistors and 8 diodes. It really works, though the track change mechanism could probably do with an overhaul, and the case needs a good polish but even after all these years the sound is surprisingly good on the small handful of cartridges I have in my collection, though, because of their age Iím reluctant to play them too often.

 

What Happened to it?

The big problem with 8-track cartridges was the single-reel Ďendless loop design, which puts a lot of strain on the tape, and the drive mechanism, but itís big advantage over cassette was that there was no need to rewind the tape, and you could switch tracks (4 x stereo) at the press of a button, though without any means to fast-forward or rewind you usually had to wait to hear a favourite tune come around.   

 

I havenít been able to find out much about the Kyoto brand, which sounds Japanese but the ĎMade iní label on the back says Taiwan. I suspect it quietly disappeared in the 1980ís, especially if manufacturing 8-track players was its only business because thatís when the format finally died out.

 

8-Track lingered on in the US for a few years but it was killed by the smaller, cheaper, more convenient and yes, more reliable compact cassette. 8-Track never had any real impact on the home hi-fi market so players like this are probably quite rare. This one was found at an antiques fare and it cost £15 with half a dozen cartridges, of which two actually worked. This is definitely a technology worth collecting, prices are still very low and if you can get hold of some tapes home players like this one are fun to play around with.


GIZMO GUIDE

First seen:                         1970?

Original Price                   £25?

Value Today?                   £15 0311

Features:                          Volume, Tone, Balance and Track change button, 12 transistors, 8 diodes, headphone jack and speaker output
Power req.                        230VAC mains

Weight:                             2.8kg

Dimensions:                     260 x 230 x 110mm

Made in:                            Taiwan

Henís Teeth (10 rarest):   6


Philips EL3302 Cassette Recorder 1968

Philips invented the Compact Cassette format in 1963 and it was an almost immediate success, quickly overtaking reel-to-reel machines and ousting the many rival cassette formats which were appearing at about the same time. The EL3302 was one of the very first machines to use the new format and it was the first cassette recorder I ever owned. This one, bought recently on ebay for a fiver, is a slightly later model as it has a clear plastic cassette lid but otherwise it is identical with the same three-way transport switch, press to record button and recording level/battery meter.

 

Two thumbwheels on the side control output volume and recoding level and beside them is a bank of sockets, for the supplied microphone, line input and output and an external speaker. This was, perhaps the most annoying aspect of this machine in that it used DIN type sockets, rather than the near universal Jack connectors used on virtually every other audio device at the time. Philips and its then partners Grundig stuck grimly with DIN connectors until well into the 80s, much to everyoneís annoyanceÖ

 

This was a mono machine Ė stereo cassettes were still some way off  -- and the sound through the built in speaker wasnít very good but hook it up to an external speaker or a hi-fi system and it didnít sound half bad. Build quality was excellent and the only thing to go wrong was the rubber drive belt, but these were (and still are) cheap and readily obtainable.

 

What Happened To It?

The EL3302 and its many variants were produced until the early 70s when they were replaced with much cheaper (and nastier designs) and eventually this type of large portable or table top cassette recorder gradually declined in popularity as the personal ĎWalkmaní style of player took off and cassette decks were integrated into stereo systems and car radios.

 

After almost 45 years the cassette is now dying out, a remarkable achievement for such a simple technology, and it will be sorely missed, even if it was noisy and unreliable. Recorders like the EL3302 are very thin on the ground now and could become a very decent investment, especially if you can find one in good condition, with its original leather carry case and microphone. 


GIZMO GUIDE

First seen:                         1968

Original Price                   £18

Value Today?                   £10 0211

Features:                          Fast forward and rewind modes, level/battery meter
Power req.                        5 x C

Weight:                             0.4kg

Dimensions:                     200 x 115 x 55mm

Made in:                            Austria

Henís Teeth (10 rarest):    5


Grundig Memorette 1968

Itís tempting to think that tape recorders have always been about recording music and entertainment but the real driving force behind the technology is more mundane.

 

Until the early 1960s most tape recorders were found not in the home, but in offices where they were used as dictating machines. Grundig has been a major player in this market and over the years has produced some highly innovative designs, usually based around clever and exotic cassette formats. Itís worth remembering that before the Philips Compact Cassette took off in the mid 1960s there were scores of cassette systems in use.

 

This particular model uses a Cassette 30 pack, is a single-track design that only works in one direction, as it were, and unlike a reel-to-reel tape or cassette it cannot be turned over. The tape has to be fully rewound, whereupon it can be used again. Itís an ingenious design, though, and the end of the tape is attached to a tab, which slots into a notch on the fixed take-up reel; when the cassette is removed the tab clips to the edge of the cassette, so it wonít get lost inside.

 

The Grundig Memorette is a bit of a odd-ball design, half cassette, half reel-to-reel, but itís role as a dictating machine is in no doubt, as can be seen by the chunky styling, idiot-proof controls and features like the linear time-readout meter, showing how much tape had been used, and how much remains. Itís also a portable machine, powered by a battery pack containing three DEAC packs. Incidentally DEAC (Deutsche Edison-Akkumulatoren Company, now owned by Varta Batteries) were pioneers in nickel cadmium rechargeable battery technology back in the 60s, but thatís another story.

 

Itís superbly well built and the mechanical components are a good example of German precision engineering. The electronic too are a sight to behold with the innards dominated by a large printed circuit board sporting pairs of OC71 and the rare 0C74 germanium transistors. This particular example is in excellent condition and almost certainly works, though the re-chargeable pack has long since expired and until I can find a circuit diagram, to find out what its voltage requirements are Iím reluctant to power it up.

 

What Happened To It

Itís a toss-up whether electric typewriters and word processors or the Compact Cassette consigned dictating machines to the dustbin of history. True, you can still buy voice-recorders, but this weighty machine and its ilk belongs to a bygone era, of secretaries and typing pools, when it would have been unheard of for a boss or middle manager to actually master the complexities of a typewriter.

 

Dictating machines were usually high quality items and expensive too, they were also made in comparatively small numbers so they are fairly rare. Nevertheless this is a largely unexplored sector of the collectible electronics market and there are still some real bargains to be had, but maybe not for much longerÖ


GIZMO GUIDE

First seen:                         1968

Original Price                   £100.00

Value Today?                   £10.00 0211

Features:                          Cassette tape, record, playback, remote control, retractable carry handle
Power req.                        6 volt DEAC rechargeable battery pack

Weight:                             2.8kg

Dimensions:                     150 x 260 x 80 mm

Made in:                            Germany

Henís Teeth (10 rarest):   5


Talkboy Cassette Tape Recorder 1990

I was in two minds about including the Talkboy since it is so recent Ė it first appeared in 1990 -- but it has an interesting history, and with the last audio cassette machines about to disappear from the shops, the format is now all but obsolete.


Anyway, Talkboy started life as a prop in the movie Home Alone 2. This featured Macaulay Culkin reprising his role as Kevin, the accidentally abandoned child, this time in New York City. The tape recorder features in several scenes and in one of them he uses a slowed down recording of his fatherís voice to book a hotel room over the phone.

 

Following the filmís release a lot of people asked where they could buy the fictitious toy, so Tiger Electronics in Japan licensed the design from 20th Century Fox and made it a reality. It quickly became very popular, despite the high price. Sales were spurred on by a clever ad campaign showing kids using the machineís voice-changing slomo mode for various pranks. Tiger also went on to develop a pink version called the Talkgirl.

 

Technically itís nothing special, just a fairly ordinary cheapo cassette recorder but very cleverly packaged, with an extending microphone and the half speed switch on the handgrip.

 

This one is in great shape and itís a runner; it was discovered at a boot sale a few years ago selling for a fiver (bargained down to £3.00). Thereís not much to go wrong with them but as with all battery powered gadgets condition is everything. Any corrosion in the battery compartment is a very bad sign; the corrosive chemicals can damage internal components, making the device practically worthless.

 

What Happened to It?

As with most toys this oneís lifespan would have been fairly short. Most will have been broken or thrown away within a year or two of purchase, moreover, because of the fairly high price itís unlikely many were sold in the UK. Boxed Talkboys in good condition are fairly thin on the ground and they have been spotted on ebay selling for as much as £50, though £10 to £15 for a really fine example is nearer the mark. Talkgirls are even rarer, though without the movie association itís unlikely theyíll become collectible anytime soon.


GIZMO GUIDE

First seen:                         1990

Original Price                   £25.00

Value Today?                   £15.00 0111 

Features:                          Cassette tape recorder, slow-speed switch, integral speaker, volume control and earphone socket  
Power req.                        4 x AA

Weight:                             400g

Dimensions:                      180 x 115 x 90 mm

Made in:                            China

Henís Teeth (10 rarest):     4


Shogun Music Muff 1982

 

Dating from late 1982 the Shogun Music Muff was the first and quite possibly the only attempt to combine a stereo FM radio and micro cassette player into a pair of headphones.

 

The Tuner is on one side and the tape deck on the other, with the batteries (3 x AAA) held in a sliding draw that fits into the underside of the radio. Despite the weight (around 500g with batteries and tape) it is surprisingly comfortable thanks to the soft ear cushions and padded and adjustable headband

 

What Happened to it?

The radio works well enough but it all goes horribly wrong with the tape player. Itís a cheapo design and apart from the poor sound quality itís clearly impossible to avoid motor noise when itís only a few centimetres from your right ear. The other, more fundamental problem was the complete lack of pre-recorded micro cassettes. Back in those days micro cassette recorders were rare and expensive so there wasnít even the opportunity to make your own. It had a relatively short life -- probably on sale for less than 6 months -- few were made and hardly any will have survived and those that have could be worth a few bob to collectors of odd-ball tape recorders


GIZMO GUIDE

First seen:                   1982

Original Price              £79.99

Value Today?              £40 1210

Features:                     Stereo microcassette player, FM tuner telescopic antenna

Power req.                  3 x AA

Weight:                       0.5kg (ex batteries)

Dimensions:                110 x 85 x 120mm (very approx)

Made in:                      Japan

Rarity:                          8 (1 = common, 10 = Hen's teeth)

 

 

 

 

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