... In the beginning (part 2)

Bing Crosby to the Rescue.

We all remember Bing Crosby, with his trademark hat (covering his dreaded toupee), smoking his pipe and singing “White Christmas”. But did you know that Bing Crosby was also a pioneer in the history of magnetic tape recording?

Crosby, a very private man, grew tired of doing live performances. He was under contract with NBC, which forbade him doing recorded broadcasts. The primary reason was that the quality of recorded broadcasts was quite poor at the time.

Crosby took some time off and, when he returned, he signed with Philco, on the new ABC Network. ABC and Philco had agreed to let him do recorded broadcasts, but the quality was so poor that Bing Crosby's ratings and image suffered as a result.

Back in the summer of 1947, an employee of Bing Crosby Enterprises, Murdo McKenzie, happened to see a demonstration of the original German Magnetophon that Jack Mullin had brought back from Germany to the US as war memorabilia, along with about 50 reels of tape made by BASF in Germany (see Part 1).

The quality was superb and could be edited with splicing tape down to performances of 20 - 30 minutes (at 30 inches per second), without the usual generation loss that accompanied the 33-rpm transcription discs used at that time.

Here was the opportunity that Bing Crosby had been hoping for!

Crosby Enterprises hired Mullin and his reassembled Magetophon to start recording his Philco show in August 1947, with the same 50 reels of magnetic tape that Mullin had brought back from Germany. The quality was so good that Crosby placed an order to produce the first Ampex Model 200 Audio Tape Recorders.

In 1948, the second season of Philco shows were taped with the Ampex Model 200 tape recorders, using the new Scotch 111 tape from 3M. The first two were modeled on the Magnetophon and were followed immediately by twelve more for ABC. (The ABC order had, in fact, made the final financing possible.) But ABC was skeptical and insisted on using 33-rpm transcription discs, until its engineers were sure of the “reliability” of blank tape.

Today tape (magnetic recording media) has a US household penetration of nearly 100%, and remains one of the most important inventions of the 20th century.

Ironically, on December 31, 2004 (this past New Year's Eve), Quantegy, formerly Ampex Magnetic Tape, abruptly closed its tape manufacturing plant in Opelika Alabama, thus essentially ending over 55 years of reel-to-reel audio recording in the United States. RIP to Quantegy, a great company with a proud tradition.
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