Monday, August 27, 2018

W3JJN recordings

On Saturday, I mentioned finding some interesting records at a flea market. I like to dig through old records anyway (for a variety of reasons), but one of the things I'm always looking for are homemade records, such as those by Recordio and some other companies. I think the amateur audio is great, but what I'm really looking for is recordings of radio.

The computer era is wonderful because I can record nearly every pirate that I hear. I have hours of recordings of Radio Free Whatever, WEAK Radio, and many others. But before easy to save and organize MP3 files, I recorded to cassette--and I was disorganized enough that I rarely did it. Still, many people did because everyone had cassette recorders and the media was inexpensive. In general, much fewer recordings from the radio exist from the '70s, '80s, and early '90s, but they're far from rare. Going back to the '50s and '60s largely predates the cassette, which didn't find widespread use until the late '60s. This was the era of the open-reel (a.k.a. "reel to reel") tape deck. I like to dig through boxes of open-reel tapes, in hopes of finding some radio recordings. Over the years,  I have found a few, but nothing monumental. A few minutes of KQV here and there, etc.

Before open-reel decks were wire recorders. Information was magnetized onto a fine reel of stainless steel wire. It was essentially the same concept as tape decks, whether open reel or cassette, only the tape system was a refinement (an oxide coating on a plastic tape), rather than trying to magnetize a wire. I was at an outdoor flea market about five years ago and I passed by a wire recorder and about a dozen radio broadcasts of Philadelphia baseball (I can't remember now whether it was the A's or Phillies). I could kick myself for letting that go, but the recorder was large, heavy (probably about 50 lbs.) and the owner didn't know if it worked. I was afraid of getting stuck with yet another nonfunctional chunk of electronics.

Before wire recorders were record recorders. These took an audio source and the needle cut a blank disc with grooves. From what I understand, these homemade discs weren't meant to be played back too many times because the needles wore into the grooves more quickly than commercially manufactured records. I'm not sure what they were all made from, but I know that some were aluminum discs with a thin layer of plastic.

I always look for the homemade records because there weren't too many options for audio sources back then. By the open-reel tape era, a lot of people were recording entire albums to tape, so they weren't necessarily recording the radio. But, for example, in 1940, the options were basically either family greetings, someone singing or a band playing, or the radio. And chances are good that any recording you find is the only one in existence.

I found three of these on Saturday.

Here's a photo of one. They are amateur radio QSOs from W3JJN to a couple of other operators. W3JJN cataloged the discs by side . . . and this was number 477. So, at least 237 other records existed in his homemade record collection at one time. The sides that I have are dated in late 1945 and early 1946. To me, this is an astounding find because I'm not sure how many recordings exist of any amateur radio operations prior to 1950, not to mention that this is still very early in the post-war period.

I did some searching on W3JJN and he was William E. Belz, who lived at that time on 1509 Linden Avenue in Baltimore, Maryland. He was a TV repairman who was born in Duncansville, PA, and died in 1981 after a lengthy illness.

My big problem here is that these records are disintegrating. The plastic layer is cracking badly and separating from the aluminum discs. I guess what I really need is one of the laser turntables that can play back audio from broken discs and won't damage the grooves. I don't think I can risk playing any of these on a regular turntable, but I want to recover the audio quickly before the discs degrade further.

I think I'm going to try contacting the ARRL or one of the radio museums for ideas.


  1. I cannot tell from the photo but are the discs bigger in diameter than a standard LP record? If so, they may be transcription discs and were probably cut on a special turntable. In fact some discs are played by starting on the inside track going outward to the outer edge which is just the opposite to playing a standard record. If so, they would not play back on a standard phono turntable. Several years ago I had a transcription disc from a radio station in 1948 that I needed to recover the information from. I was fortunate to find a retired radio station engineer that just happened to have one of these special turntables and he was able to copy the information off onto a CD for me.

  2. I know this post is a few years old, but I'm wondering if anyone knows where I can get a transcription disk. I have one my parents recorded when they were dating. "Silvertone" is the name on the label. It's 6 1/2" diameter. Thanks, Anna