Soundmirror (1948 – 1954)

Soundmirror tape (also known as ‘magic ribbon tape’) was a magnetic tape format for use on the Soundmirror tape recorder made by Thermionic Products in the United Kingdom. What was unusual about it was that was made of paper with an oxide coating rather than the standard plastic tape.

Thermionic introduced the Soundmirror tape recorder in late-1948 under licence from the Brush Development Company in the US, after introducing the Recordon dictation disc (also made of paper) earlier in the year. The Soundmirror machine became the first domestic tape recorder on the UK market.

While the Recordon disc was aimed at the dictation market, the Soundmirror format was aimed at longer duration recording such as concerts, meetings and lectures. The tape ran at 7.5 inches per second on a maximum reel size of 7-inches, so allowing up to around 30 minutes of recording.

Production of the Soundmirror continued until 1954 by which time acetate (and later polyester) had become the standard magnetic tape base material.

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Voice Record (1930s – early 1940s)

Voice Records were small aluminium phonograph discs, intended to be used to record a personal message.

They were introduced in the 1930s in the UK, to be recorded in automatic booths operated by the Amusement Equipment Co. Ltd. of Wembley. The booths were placed in places were people might want to record a message to family or friends, such as  tourist attractions.

The discs were 5-inches in diameter, span at 78rpm, and were double-sided with one side for recording up to one minute of a personal message and the other containing a pre-recorded advertisement (often for cigarettes, but sometimes promoting attractions local to the machine). The discs came with a mailing envelope for posting the recorded message and some wooden needles, since the steel needles used at the time on phonographs would damage the recording.

This most likely the system Graham Greene had in mind when writing Brighton Rock (1938) when Pinkie records his message to Rose.

The machines were withdrawn from service during World War II, when supplies of aluminium were needed for military use. It is probable that many Voice Records were donated as scrap for the war effort.

The Voice-O-Graph was a very similar later concept, but used laminated cardboard.

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Scotch One Five Special (1960s)

The Scotch One Five Special was a 3-inch reel of ¼-inch magnetic recording tape produced by 3M that could be recorded and played back on a standard open reel tape recorder. Once recorded, the reel would be placed back in its packaging which had space on it to write an address and to attach postage stamps to send it to someone. The tape could record for 15 minutes (hence the name) when run at 3¾-inches per second.

Similar reels marketed for keeping in touch by posting voice recordings were available around the same time, such as the Mastertape Voice Letter and the EMI Voice Letter. The Smith Corona Mail Call Letterpack of the late 1960s was a similar concept. Postage overseas was much cheaper than making an international telephone call at the time.

The One Five Special does not seem to have become very popular, and would probably have been superseded by smaller and more convenient products like the Compact Cassette.

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Recordon (1948 – mid 1950s)

The Recordon was an office dictation system using 9-inch paper disc with a magnetic coating. It was introduced by the UK company Thermionic Products in 1948 with the Recordon TP503 machine, made under license by the Brush Development Company of the USA that produced the Mail-A-Voice system.

The Recordon Recording Disc had fold lines printed on it, and could be folded for mailing. The system was fairly low fidelity, but was adequate for dictation purposes and as the recording runs from the centre to the outside of the disc, quality improves. Discs could be erased for re-use.

A couple of further models of the Recordon were produced, but in the mid-1950s Thermionic switched to the Agavox system.

Thermionic also introduced the Soundmirror tape recorder to the UK market in 1948, and like the Recordon this also used paper as the base material, in this case for magnetic tape.

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Mohawk Midgetape (1955 – early 1960s)

The Mohawk Midgetape was an early portable tape recorder introduced by Mohawk Business Machines in 1955 with the Midgetape 44 model.

It used a tape cassette in a metal casing with ¼-inch tape allowing 30 or 45 minutes of recording on each side of the tape. The cassette design is unusual in having the spools on top of each other (coaxial).

The is no fast forward, and rewinding is done with a fold-out handle. It came with a microphone, and had a headphone jack. Accessories included a separate amplifier, an adaptor for recording telephone conversations, a wristwatch microphone, and a leather bag with hidden microphone.

Later models were fully transistorised (the 44 had used subminiature valve tubes) and the final Midgetape model was the 500 Professional introduced in 1959. There was a also a machine based on the Midgetape called the Lafayette Transcoder that in 1961 claimed to be able to record conversation up to 30 feet away.

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8⅓ rpm flexi-discs (early 1970s – 2001)

The National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS/BPH) began distributing magazines and books on flexible discs running at 8⅓ rpm in the early 1970s in the US. Machines capable of playing this very slow speed had already been made available a number of years previously when model AE-1 was introduced in 1965, and existing machines were also converted by volunteers. Standard ‘rigid’ records running at 8⅓ rpm had been available via the NLS/BPH since 1969.

Magazine titles available included Readers Digest, National Geographic, Sports Illustrated, and U.S. News & World Report.

The flexi-discs were 9-inches in diameter and had Braille centre labels. They also had narrower grooves than a standard record, so a finer stylus is required to avoid damage. The use of a slow speed and fine grooves allowed very long playing times, but lower fidelity. The discs could be produced quickly and cheaply, meaning audio magazines could be distributed as soon as possible after the print copy. Their success meant the NLS/BPH stopped using rigid records by the late 1980s.

After 1994, audio magazines on flexible disc began to be phased out in favour of Compact Cassettes, and the final discs were sent out in 2001.

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Philips EL 3583 (1963 – early 1970s)

The Philips EL 3583 was an office dictation machine that used small cartridges of ⅛-inch tape. It appears to have been introduced around 1963, around the same time that Philips also introduced their Compact Cassette system, and it may have replaced the EL 3581 system.

The threading mechanism was unusual; a supply cartridge and a separate take-up cartridge would be placed in the machine and lever would be depressed causing a latch at the end of the supply cartridge’s tape to be pulled across and to lock into the take-up spool.

Like other dictation machines, the microphone also acted as a small speaker and contained a control to begin recording.

It’s unclear when the system was produced until, but it seems unlikely to be much beyond the early 1970s as Philips own Compact Cassette and mini-cassette designs, as well as other competing cassettes such as the Microcassette were available.

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16⅔ rpm LP (Long Play) 12 inch record (early 1950 – early 1970s)

Whilst the vast majority of Long Play records were played at 33⅓ rpm, a few records were made to be played at half that speed, 16⅔ rpm (usually listed as 16 rpm). Many of these were spoken word, since the slow speed meant lower fidelity reproduction, but despite this there were a few music releases, mainly from South Africa.

Even though 16 rpm records were rare even at the time, many record decks of the 1950s, 1960s and even into the 1970s came with a 16 rpm speed setting.

The 16⅔ rpm speed was also used for the short-lived in-car Highway Hi-Fi system of 1956 using 7-inch discs, and for the Seeburg Background Music System of 1959 using 9-inch disks.

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EMI Voice Letter (1960s)

The EMI Voice Letter was a 3-inch reel of ¼-inch magnetic recording tape that could be recorded and played back on a standard open reel tape recorder. Once recorded, the reel would be placed back in its packaging which had space on it to write an address and to attach postage stamps to send it to someone. The tape could record 10 minutes when run at 3¾-inches per second.

Similar reels marketed for keeping in touch by posting voice recordings were available around the same time, such as the Mastertape Voice Letter and the Scotch One Five Special. The Smith Corona Mail Call Letterpack of the late 1960s was a similar concept. Postage overseas was much cheaper than making an international telephone call at the time.

The EMI Voice Letter does not seem to have become very popular, and would probably have been superseded by smaller and more convenient products like the Compact Cassette.

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Grundig Stenorette (1954 – 1970s)

The Stenorette was an office dictation machine introduced by Grundig in 1954, and successfully sold internationally. It was perhaps the earliest magnetic tape dictation system – at the time of its introduction, most office dictation systems were using discs or belts onto which grooves were pressed, such as the SoundScriber, Audograph, or Dictabelt systems. The first model, the Stenorette A, was nicknamed the ‘tree frog’ due to its green colour. Like some other dictation systems, the microphone doubled as the speaker, and contained stop/start controls.

The Stenorette cassette contained a single reel of ¼-inch tape, and a loop on the end was pulled out and clipped into the take-up reel. Recording time was 30 minutes per cassette, but some offered 45 minutes. Some tapes, particularly those from the US, seem to have no cover and are simply a small reel.

The Stenorette cassette system lasted into the 1970s with the introduction of the Stenorette SL model in 1972, but Grundig launched its first machine using its new cassette format, the Steno-Cassette in the same year. The Steno-Cassette was a true cassette containing dual reels and as well as being more compact, didn’t need to be rewound before being removed from the machine. The Stenorette name was continued on machines using the newer Steno-Cassette format.

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