How FDR Got His Tape Recorder


What would look to any visitor like an ordinary lamp cord coming down in front of the desk was in fact the electrical connection linking the microphone with the rest of the system. This wire, wrapped in thick insulation, ran from the lamp to the floor, where it disappeared under the desk. There, out of sight of inquisitive eyes, it made its way up through a hole in the bottom of the desk to a small box containing controls that duplicated the ones on the machine in the basement. Thus, without leaving his desk, FDR could start or stop the machine, put it on “idle,” or rewind the film to hear what had been recorded.

All the wires connecting the control box in the President’s desk drawer with the machine in the closet-like enclosure in the basement were secreted in a cable, about one inch in diameter. Mr. Kiel was concerned about the need to drill holes in the desk, and in the floor beneath it, to accommodate the cable, but a presidential secretary (possibly Marvin McIntyre) gave the necessary authorization.

When I was in Hyde Park in January for the centennial celebration of FDR’s birth, just before I first heard from Mr. Kiel, I had a unique opportunity to examine every inch of the desk. A new exhibit was being set up in the museum, and so the desk not only had been cleared of all the knickknacks with which the President had always loved to clutter it but also had been removed from its inaccessible display space. I found a small section of wire still attached to the desk, as well as a hole underneath it—in the front and on the left (as viewed from FDR’s desk chair).

Why didn’t the President have the tape recorder removed if he wasn’t going to use it regularly?

On both sides of a middle drawer there had originally been three drawers. At some point, however, the arrangement on the left-hand side had been changed: the second and third drawers had been converted into a double drawer without any sides and with a thick plywood panel added to the bottom. As nearly as I could judge, something electrical had been housed in that drawer.

As I was examining the desk I remembered that Grace Tully had once told me FDR had kept a small radio in there. She recalls sitting in the Oval Office, with the President, listening to Winston Churchill speaking to a joint session of the Congress soon after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

In 1945, on the day FDR died, an Associated Press reporter wrote a detailed description of the President’s Oval Office desk, as he had left it for the last time. According to this account, “a panel” on the left-hand side of the desk, “opened onto an elaborate radio. Underneath were the buttons which summoned White House assistants.”

Mr. Kiel says that “if there was a radio” in there, “it was independent of our equipment. ” Perhaps the AP reporter saw the radio Miss Tully remembers; perhaps he also saw the buttons of Mr. Kiel’s control box. The conversion of two drawers into one to accommodate a radio could have taken place after the installation of the Kiel Reporter. If so, the control box, which Mr. Kiel originally placed in a single-depth drawer, might have ended up in the new double drawer.

Why did FDR keep the Continuousfilm Recording Machine in the White House if he was not going to use it regularly? The answer can be found, I think, in the story filed by the AP reporter: FDR apparently never discarded anything. One desk drawer, for instance, contained not only “knickknacks that were broken and awaiting repair” but also a bottle of wine an aide said had been there “at least eight years. ”

The fact that the Kiel Reporter was still in the basement underneath the Oval Office at the time of FDR’s death probably explains why the museum in Hyde Park does not have what was perhaps the only presidential desk lamp in the history of the United States to be equipped with a broadcast-type recording microphone. When the machine was removed from the White House early in the Truman Presidency, the control box in the desk drawer and the lamp containing the microphone probably went with it, ending up at RCA as “salvage.” What a shame.

It is also “most unfortunate,” as Mr. Kiel points out, that the re-recording of the FDR material in 1947 was apparently not done properly and that the original 35-mm film was destroyed. Of course we do not know what condition the film was in when it was delivered to the National Archives, but Mr. Kiel has a sample of film recorded on his Reporter over forty years ago, and it is still as good as new. Film can shrink, however, and this may have been the problem. If he had been consulted, or if the film had been sent to RCA instead of to the National Archives, “excellent recordings could have been made after President Roosevelt’s death” merely “by decreasing the circumference of the mandrel [in the machine] to compensate for the shrinkage.” The disc recordings would then have been clear and accurate rather than garbled, as some of them are.

Because of the war, RCA never mass-produced the Kiel Reporter. Responding in March 1942 to a letter from Mr. Kiel’s father, asking about “the number of units … manufactured to date … to whom sold or rented and where located … ,”an executive of the RCA Manufacturing Company replied that eight machines had been made. One had been “sold to the British,” two were in RCA’s Washington office, three were at the Indianapolis plant, one was being used by the Potomac Electric Power Company, and there was “one at the White House.”