How FDR Got His Tape Recorder

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Mr. Kiel came to hold a half-dozen patents for recording and reproduction devices, all predating the development of the one used in FDR’s White House. RCA did not invent that machine and neither did Harry Payne. It is a curious fact, however, that one of Mr. Kannee’s ideas—filling a reel of film with nothing but one sound track after another, side by side—corresponded to a Kiel invention that did precisely that. Following this success, Ripley Kiel, working on his own in Chicago in 1937 and ’38, invented a “Sound on Film” recording device that he called the Kiel Reporter (to distinguish it from another invention of his, the Kiel Recorder, which had been used by the FBI during the John Dillinger era).

The Kiel Reporter was the first recording device that could operate for as long as twenty-four hours unattended. It had a playback mechanism that permitted its users to listen immediately to the recorded material without waiting for the time-consuming processing associated with recordings-on-film in the motion-picture industry.

On October 27, 1938, Mr. Kiel filed an application (Serial No. 237,225) for a patent and followed it with a second application (Serial No. 334,357), filed on May 10, 1940. Two patents were ultimately issued: the first on August 19, 1941 (No. 2,253,302), and the second on March 23, 1943 (No. 2,314,834).

The Reporter provided a method of recording and reproducing “Sound on Film” (the name used in the patents) “transversely rather than longitudinally” on the filmstrip. This was done “diagonally in parallel lines extending at an angle of approximately 30 degrees to the [film] strip axis.” Since the recording was continuous and compact, a substantial amount of material could be recorded on a very short piece of film: fifteen feet of 35-mm film was more than enough for a full hour.

Not only was this a very economical way of using the film; it also meant that a person working with the Reporter could easily locate a particular point for reproduction purposes. In the Kiel machine, the progress of the soundcarrier film beneath the stylus (a single, stationary needle mounted virtually perpendicular to the film surface) was so gradual that portions of the recording widely separated in time were not widely spaced in terms of distance.

“Indices of position,” showing where something was located, were imprinted on the carrier film to assist the user in pinpointing the material he or she wished to review. A log, kept by the user, would supply the necessary information: “Reel C, 106-112: September 6, 1940, FDR discusses Roy Howard’s activities in the Far East.”

A very important feature of Mr. Kiel’s Reporter was a “remote-control” mode that could be used not only for normal dictation but also for “the automatic recording of conversation or other sound without the intervention of an operator exercising manual control.” Once someone had turned the machine on and had set it for remote-control operation, it would begin recording automatically, without further manual intervention, as soon as any sound was made. A person’s voice, a cough or sneeze, a pen scratching across the surface of a piece of paper, or the ringing of a telephone would start it. I was wrong when I wrote that the machine would go right on running if neither the President nor Mr. Kannee turned it off. If the microphone picked up no sounds, the film would not move at all, but as soon as someone started talking, it would immediately resume recording whatever was said. This feature helps greatly to explain why a number of the President’s conversations in the Oval Office in the autumn of 1940—possibly even all the ones we have—were captured on the “one roll of scribed acetate sound recordings” found in the White House after FDR’s death.

No matter how brilliant the conception may be, inventions do not help the inventor very much unless they go into production and are marketed. Just as some authors have agents, so do some inventors; that is where Harry Payne came into the picture. His full name was Charles Harrison Payne. He was not an inventor himself but a promoter of inventions, among them the Jeep. Mr. Kiel hired Harry Payne to bring his Reporter to the attention of potential manufacturers. When RCA proved interested, a demonstration was arranged at RCA’s plant in Camden, New Jersey. As a result RCA obtained from Mr. Kiel the rights to manufacture his Reporter, and hired him as consulting engineer.

“I am the inventor of the machine on which the ‘Roosevelt tapes’ were made,” he wrote.

So much, then, for the machine itself. How about the installation? There seems to be no doubt that the Secret Service was involved at least to the extent of maintaining security. Ripley Kiel recalls helping members of the RCA Service Company install the equipment in the Oval Office “under the close supervision of the Secret Service.” He does not remember exactly when the work was done but feels that early to mid-August 1940 might be about right—it was summer and it was hot. FDR was away from the White House at the time.

Because the President’s desk lamp was not suitable for concealing a microphone, Mr. Kiel purchased an appropriate replacement and hid the microphone—an RCA Model 88D broadcast type—inside the shade. Only one microphone, about two inches in diameter, was used in the Oval Office; its presence in the lamp explains why the President can be heard so much more clearly on the recordings than his aides and visitors.