At the turn of the last century, the Danish telephone engineer, Valdemar Poulsen, pioneered recording
electromagnetically onto wire. And so began the battle between direct recording onto waxed cylinders, gramophone discs and
steel wire or tape. Not until BASF had mastered magnetic oxide coated plastic tape in the 1930s, did tape recording, as we
know it, come to the fore. By the mid 1950s, live recordings were now being mastered on tape and the days of direct recording
to disc, almost, came to end.
War-time 'live' broadcasts by the Nazi propaganda machine awakened
the allies to advances in Germany by BASF and AEG in magnetic tape-recording and a post-war battle was fought between
America and Britain in its development.
Led by M J Pulling of the BBC and E M Payne of EMI, an analysis
of the pioneering German AEG Magnetophon for the British government in late 1945, opened the door to development of magnetic
taperecorders in Britain by EMI for broadcasting and record production, Scophony for scientific use and, in 1948, Thermionic
Products in the domestic and commerical market. By 1950/51 several other companies had entered the market but it was not until
the late 1950s when the gramophone makers, Collaro and BSR, introduced their basic decks did the British market boom.
The burning question of, "Which was the first British tape recorder?" is not a simple one to answer.
If we ignore the pre-war Blattnerphone and Marconi-Stille steel-tape recorders, the first British plastic-tape recorder was
announced in April 1947. This was a 4" portable from Plessey for scientific use - little is known of it. Also in
1947 EMI developed their BTR1 studio recorder from the AEG Magnetophon.
In 1948 Thermionic Products
launched their 9" magnetic oxide coated disc recorder, the 'Recordon' for dictation. This however was a license
built American 'Mail-a-Voice' model but in late 1948 Thermionics developed their paper-tape 'Soundmirror'
- again licensed from Brush; it was officially launched at the May 1949 BIF show at Olympia. This was truly the first production,
British built, complete tape recorder, for although Wright & Weaire had demonstrated their prototype deck in
October 1948, their revised production model did not come on stream until late spring 1949 - but their first complete tape
recorder, the Ferrograph, did not appear until late 1949. By now, RGD had on offer an AEG Magnetophon based model while
General Laminations were offering their 'Sound Magnet' with an unidentified tape deck.
1948 Scophony had been quietly developing a tape deck for the British government. Their first commercial model
was launched in July 1949 as the Scophony-Baird 'Cine-Soundmaster', to synchronise sound to silent movies; this
was followed in 1951 by the Scophony-Baird 'Soundmaster' domestic tape recorder.
By 1950 several
new decks began to appear from the simplest and, frankly, quiet crude kit-built decks to complete, and quite advanced,
models for quite diverse markets. At the bottom of the market were those aimed at radio-enthusists who built kits supplied
by High Street radio/electronic component dealers such as Stern, MOS, Premier, Garland etc, using the Lane deck followed quickly
by the Motek; the commercial user was offered mainly dictation or answerphone/automatic dialers, while the professional
user was offered models by Bradmatic. In 1951 a new legal requirement for airfield to pilot communication recorders led
to the rapid development by Thermionic Products of multi-track voice recorders, in which they became world leaders.
But the 'domestic' market was barely covered, other than by the T-P Soundmirror or Baird Soundmaster.
This was understandable for tape was expensive and few saw any reason to replace their gramophone collection, besides, Britain
was still subject to rationing, though to an ever lesser degree. However in 1953 Max Grundig launched his well built
and specified German-made tape recorders in Britain, aiming them at the amateur cine-photographer to add sound to their
films. The 'domestic' market soon took off and by 1954, famous names such as Ferrograph, Truvox and Brenell were soon
becoming leaders in the quality and semi-professional markets, albeit trailing behind Grundig in sales!
British mass-market was opened up in 1955 by the Collaro Transcriptor deck which allowed radio manufacturers to enter
the market for the first time. The Transcriptor was replaced by the, arguably inferior, Studio in 1957 which soon faced a
new competitor, the BSR Monardeck TD1.
Many hundreds of inexpensive, badge-engineered decks now entered
the market especially following the introduction of 1/4 track heads and with it, stereo in 1958, for it halved the relative
cost of recording making it affordable to the influential pop-crazed 'teen market, making the 1960s the hay-day
of British tape-recording with a bewildering host of models; but it was short lived for following the introduction by Philips
of their 'Compact Cassette' in 1963, it soon decimated the global open-reel market and along with more open
trade with Japan, by the end of the decade, the open-reel domestic market had collapsed along with much of the British tape
Those few who survived, such as Brenell, Ferrograph and Leevers-Rich now concentrated
on the professional, scientific and studio markets only to fold with the universal adoption of digital recording in the
In essence, a tape deck comprises a flat, rigid plate
onto which were screwed heads, motors and control gear. The deck was invariably an aluminium alloy plate, but Bradmatic used a
3/4" thick Tufnol phenolic-resin board while Truvox used a 3/4" plywood deck. Motors were invariably from gramophones,
or small fans, from companies such as Garrard, Collaro or BT-H. Most early models used three motors and often only a single
speed though many opted for two speed, manually changed pulleys, or capstan sleeves for extra speeds.
the late 1960s professional decks were using hysteresis synchronous capstan motors usually from Papst of Germany. Studio models
often used direct drive capstan motors.
Heads were usually wound
in a quiet corner of the deck maker's factory, but very soon, companies such as Wright and Weaire, Bradmatic, Brenell
and Truvox were offering their heads to others. Independent companies such as Marriott soon cornered the 'domestic'
model market while engineers who had worked with Marriott, specialised in studio heads such as Branch & Appleby. The professional
market however turned to Bogen of Germany in the 1960s.
early tape sold in Britain came from Scotch of the USA - either branded or under licence. The major British tape maker
was EMI, closely followed by MSS, with their 'Mastertape', and finally, Zonal who became Ilford-Zonal and finally
Racal-Zonal; the company survives today.
Guide to British tape recorders is a fully illustrated book which traces the full history and development of
the tape-recorder industry, from the simple domestic models to the complex scientific, instrumentation and communication recorders
along with the associated tape, head and component makers along with the potted histories of the 100+ British tape recorder
makers and their models. This is a major work.
It is hoped others will research individual companies
before it is too late, just as I have for Brenell, Truvox, Thermionic Products, Racal.. and as Terry Martini has for Ferrograph.
Time is running out!
Copies of A Guide to British tape recorders are available
from this web-site.