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How FDR Got His Tape Recorder

July 2024
10min read

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.

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.

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.”

According to this same letter, RCA had promised to lend one of the Indianapolis machines to the University of Chicago. Mr. Kiel believes that this particular Reporter was subsequently used by the scientists who were at work there on the early stages of the development of the atomic bomb.

Many years ago Mr. Kiel had a prototype of his Reporter in his home, but when he and his wife retired to Florida in 1959 they did not take it with them. “Now I wish I had,” Mr. Kiel says, “because I could show you just how those recordings were made.” Today probably all the machines are gone: like the one at the White House, the other seven may have been dismantled. If a Kiel Reporter has somehow escaped destruction, AMERICAN HERITAGE and I—to name only two of the interested parties—would certainly like to hear about it!

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