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How FDR Got His Tape Recorder
October/november 1982 | Volume 33, Issue 6
When AMERICAN HERITAGE went to press with “The Story Behind the Tapes” in the February/March 1982 issue, my own curiosity in regard to the 1940 Oval Office recordings was far from satisfied. From the very beginning I had tried to learn as much as possible about the RCA machine itself. Tape recorders are a household item today but they did not exist in 1940. I knew that film had been used as a recording medium, but beyond that I could say very little else about the machine. Neither Henry Kannee nor Jack Romagna, the official White House stenographers during the FDR years, had any clear memories of the device, even though each of them had used it. This is not too surprising. The Continuous-film Recording Machine was in operation during a brief eleven-week period in the autumn of 1940 and thereafter was virtually ignored, if not entirely forgotten.
Since the two stenographers could not be very specific about the machine, I decided to put my questions to Harry Payne, the man to whom Henry Kannee said he had taken his idea of a recording device. But all my efforts to trace Mr. Payne ended in failure; if he still lived, no one knew where.
When I turned to other potential sources of information, my inquiries had to be somewhat guarded: I dared not say too much, for fear that word about the subject would get out and that I might end up, one day, reading about the FDR tapes, instead of being the one to publish the story.
The other problem on my mind from the outset concerned the installation of the recording equipment in the White House. Who had been involved? Was it the Secret Service, the FBI, the Department of Justice, or the Army Signal Corps? Since FDR was essentially an old Navy man, had he perhaps turned the matter over to that department?
When we finally released the story, the degree of interest in the Roosevelt recordings shown by the news media took me by surprise—and made me hopeful. The more people who heard about the FDR tapes, the more likely it would be that someone might appear with new information.
Three weeks passed before I got even a nibble. It came from a retired U.S. Air Force major in Maryland who thought he might be able to give me “the name and address of the man who set the bug, provided said man does agree.” Unfortunately, “said man” told the major he did not want to get involved.
I refused to give up entirely. “Mr. X” might change his mind or possibly someone else would come forward, but I realized that the chances were not in my favor. After all, I had written about something that had happened four decades ago; a man who had been thirty-seven or thirty-eight in 1940 would now be contemplating his seventy-ninth or eightieth birthday. In fact, the odds against new information coming to light at this late date suddenly seemed staggering.
Then it happened, just as I had hoped it would! In winding up her coverage of the tapes story on The Today Show, Jane Pauley had said: “Because the detective work is still going on, Professor Butow would like to point out if anybody at RCA knows more about the experimental taping system that David Sarnoff helped set up, you can sure find him and let him know about it.”
Exactly four weeks later, on Friday, February 12,1 received a letter from a gentleman in Florida, J. Ripley Kiel. You can imagine my excitement as I read his opening sentence: “Your article in AMERICAN HERITAGE is of vast interest to me because I am the inventor of the machine on which the ‘Roosevelt tapes’ were made.
“When your article was discussed by Dan Rather on the CBS evening news on January 13,” Mr. Kiel wrote, “I was amazed that one of my inventions from so long ago was being commented upon by the national news media. … On January 15 I tuned in to The Today Show just at the end of Jane Pauley’s interview with you! I immediately phoned NBC in an attempt to speak to you but they said you could not be disturbed.” And so with Mr. Kiel dictating (failing eyesight is the only way his seventy-nine years have caught up with him) and with Mrs. Kiel at the typewriter, they wrote to me instead.
John Ripley Kiel strikes me as a born inventor. His first success came at age nine when he won a national contest sponsored by the Meccano Corporation. After studying engineering at Northwestern University, he worked full time in family-owned laboratories that made sound equipment. Most of his work has been in the recording and reproduction field, but he began his post-college career by inventing a photoelectric light meter. Technically living in retirement, Mr. Kiel is still at work, his most recent inspiration being a device to alert nurses if a patient’s I.V. is running low.