Strange stuff from a computer recycler

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The Alameda County Computer Resource Center (ACCRC) is a Berkeley, California-based non-profit group that recycles anything that you can plug into a power outlet. Massive tonnage of insanely strange circuitry goes in and out of that place on a daily basis. To share some of those curiosities with the world, the ACCRC has launched "It Ain't Dead Yet," a blog for showcasing "new and/or unusual pieces of technology, identifying them, and finding their values (historical value/practical use/$ value)." Seen above is a wire recorder (circa 1945-1955) that stores audio by magnetizing a reel of fine wire. The folks at ACCRC plan to convert digital data into audio and store it on a wire reel. Just for kicks. From the description of It Ain't Dead Yet:
It serves the purpose of documenting all the interesting and weird technology that passes through the ACCRC. There will be many pieces of unidentified technology showcased here, so feel free to comment about their values/uses. All of the technology here was donated/recycled to the ACCRC, and once it has been identified and discussed, it will donated to a museum, put to use somehow, or be sold.
Webster Chicago Wire Recorder (It Ain't Dead Yet)


  1. i believe if you lived in russia during the 60’s/70’s this was how you listened to non state sanctioned music since its pretty easy to convert wax to wire.

  2. I was sorely tempted to purchase one of these at a flea MKT recently. Functioned just like a reel-to-reel tape recorder except it records onto rolls of what appear to be normal (i won’t try to guess at gauge #, but quite thin) steel wire.

    Very appealing in concept.

    “in world where music is outlawed, a desperate band of rebels must smuggle Beethoven’s symphonies disguised as ten thousand feet of braided steel cable”

  3. This machine was the workhorse for office dictation well into the early 60s. There was a foot peddle for start/stop used by the person who was transcribing. Wire recording had a narrow frequency response and sort of a built-in random ping. Wire was spliced by tying square knots that gave a pronounced ping when they went through the head. The head went up and down to pay out the wire to the take-up spool much like a fishing reel operates.
    While tape recording has a long list of inventors it wasn’t practical until WWII. Some unknown person added supersonic bias to some stock Magnetophone recorders. The first we knew of it was when on radio Hitler appeared to be in several parts of Germany at once. For the complete story search “Jack Mullins”

  4. More art deco than steampunk. Something straight out of Bioshock?

    A variant of this was used on early computers, but it used steel tape instead of steel wire. The drive was so fast (for the times) that plastic tape would break when the transport was suddenly reversed.

    Aside from being bulky and heavy, the steel tape was razor sharp and extremely hazardous. The thing was essentially a reel-to-reel band saw!

    Data drives went back to using plastic tape when someone figured out you could keep the tape slack while it was moving if you applied suction. That’s why old tape drives had those huge cabinets: vaccuum pumps and columns to hold loops of tape. The prototype had a vacuum cleaner from the cleaning crew attached to it!

  5. I’m sure for every treasure they find, there’s a 1000 90’s compaq square grey/yellowing CRT boxes. Why was it that computer stuff from then was so nasty looking? Why did certain types of plastic yellow like that?

  6. I’m too young to comprehend what this machine is for. And what’s that square thing to it’s right? Punchcard I presume.

  7. I’ve never been so jealous of another person’s work place, I wonder if they are hiring.

  8. I found one of these at a thrift store in New Mexico about 15 years ago. It still had the original recording wire on it from the 1930s! It had been used to record rehearsals for a homegrown family variety act for radio. Totally totally amazing.

  9. That machine represents the beginning of audience recording / bootlegging, doesn’t it? Obsessive jazz fans (see: Dean Benedetti) would lug those things to clubs and capture musicians like Charlie Parker ripping it up live. There were “portable” disc recorders before the advent of wire recorders, but you never read about them being used by audience members to document popular music forms. The disc recorder that John and Alan Lomax used for all those early-mid 1930s field recordings weighed over 300 pounds and sat in the trunk of John Lomax’s Ford. I think there were portable wax cylinder recorders too, but again, you never see much mention of them in the context of “early bootlegs”.

  10. Not a doktor – people could smoke at their desks (especially state offices… I worked on a lot of those PCs. ugh.) and CRT monitors develop a static charge. Much like an air purifier, it sucks the smoke right in.

    Another factor is exposure to UV from sunlight. Pigments tend to fade, and plastics yellow.

  11. While the actual wire recording technology is fascinating, when I look at this beautiful thing somehow all I can think is what a great casemod it would make!

  12. The Music Tapes are a band (associated with Neutral Milk Hotel and the Olivia Tremor Control for those who care) who recorded a very interesting record 8 years ago. They recorded in as many different formats as possible, including wax cylinder and magnetized wire.

    I only bring this up because I saw them play a little over a week ago, and it was amazing.

  13. I have a wire recorder. works great. I also have some 50(?) year old recordings of people that sound like new. The wires I have don’t fade like tape.

  14. They may think that putting digital data on recorder wire is a first, but they would be wrong. If they get it to work reliably…now, that would be a first.

    I once worked in the same department as Willis Ware, one of the people on the team that invented the disk drive. I asked him on one occasion if they’d tried anything else before they came up with the idea of laying down iron oxide on a flat platter. He said they had: they’d tried using magnetic recorder wire, and making a random-access device out of a couple of bicycle rims and a clutch. It never worked right. They gave up, and invented the disk drive instead.

    So you go, guys. Maybe you’ll take over the world with that thing.

  15. i used to have a silvertone gramaphone/5band radio/wire recorder. it came with a mess of foxtrot platter that plays great with the needle my dad made by cutting a sewing needle. the radio pulled down stations from 500 miles away with it’s wax coil antennia, but i could never get the wire recorder to make any sound except static. i ended up selling it for twice what i paid. but i still miss it.

  16. I love hearing stories about honest-to-goodness geeks (like me) creating some fun out of their job. Anything done “just for kicks” is something worth sharing.

  17. A lot of these came on the market at the end of WW2, but five or six years later it seemed like it was all tape. Short-lived as a peoples’ recorder.

    I didn’t know that about the Lomax tech. Makes their great achievement even greater. Good stuff.

  18. I love the idea of digital recording in this medium. High def output from a wire recorder – who would have thunk it.

  19. “Strange stuff from a computer recycler”
    Hmmmm…looks like strange stuff from an accordian recycler.

  20. Damn! I saw some wire reels (of that machine’s format) of mostly jazz at a flea market here in Amsterdam. I was tempted, but they were in pretty crappy shape and the guy wanted 10 euros ($15) a pop, so I passed. Might be worth checking whether he still has them.

  21. I grew up with a maroon and silver Webster-brand wire recorder around the house, which my dad bought from a swap meet about the time I was born. The first things he recorded on it were Yes’ “Owner of a Lonely Heart” and “Rock-it” by Herbie Hancock. I will forever associate those two songs with the magnetic head pulsing up and down (keeping the wire tangle-free). One major advantage of wire is if it breaks, you just tie it in a square knot, and that’s a splice.

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