Stephen Nason Recalls the Blattnerphone
I remember it was Brian Churchill (I think)
who came to me one Friday in 1992 and told me about the
Blattnerphone and the anticipated weekend arrival of the
wonderfully named Ernest Dick from the CBC.
Brian asked if there was a chance of getting some media
coverage. So I hammered out a media release and with Brian and
his team's approval dropped it out to the media via APP that
afternoon. It was a rush job but it had to go out pronto because
once Monday came the story would lose much of its its news
The Blattnerphone project had all the elements to capture media
interest - a one-of-a-kind machine in working order, throwback
to the 1930s with contrasting modern-day fraternal association
between war-time allies Canada and Australia, but most of all
the mystery of what the tapes might reveal. I knew the story
would interest radio media because that was the Blattnerphone's
area of application (and perhaps some old bloke who had operated
the machine it its heyday was still working at the ABC). But the
TV interest was surprising. Not only Channel 9, but 2, 7, 10 and
SBS turned up.
The papers got on to it too. The Sunday Age rang late Friday and
asked if they could come in on Saturday to take a pic for the
next day's paper. That's the photo story on the TRL History
website showing Brian Churchill sitting on the floor next to the
Blattnerphone (last thing I did before going home on the Friday
was to slap a Telecom logo on the table supporting the machine.
So negative was the media against Telecom back then that I
suspected the story might run without any mention of Telecom.
The photographer did ask Brian if he could remove it and to his
credit Brian said no).
Come Monday the yarn went off like a box of crackers. TV crews
and journos everywhere. The Corporate Affairs people in Telecom
HQ were pleased that TRL had generated some positive covered for
the beleaguered old firm. Although internally at TRL, Management
complained that it made TRL look old and backward (not that they
had any praise for all the other media coverage of cutting edge
TRL research that was obtained on an ongoing basis).
Anyway, here's the text of the original media release (hope it
come out - it was copied from the old Wang Office computer
system in some strange font).
A Blast from the Past - but a Walkman it isn't!
A mystery that has puzzled Canadian radio broadcasters for more
than 50 years will be solved today at Telecom Research
Laboratories in the Melbourne suburb of Clayton.
At 2:30 pm Telecom will set the metre-diameter reels rolling on
the world's only working example of a 1930s Blattnerphone - a
recording machine that was once the pinnacle of sound recording
technology. The Blattnerphone will play back rare Canadian radio
recordings that have not been heard since the days of Great
Ernest J. Dick, Corporate Archivist for the Canadian
Broadcasting Corporation, and Telecom's Brian Churchill and John
Smyth will be all ears when they play back the 11 reels of steel
magnetic tape shipped to Australia especially for the occasion.
Each of the reels weighs up to 15 kg and holds three kilometres
of steel tape that has not been played since the 1930s.
Will it be Winston Churchill raising the spirit of Canadians
during World War II, the exploits of radio serial heroes and
heroines, or original recordings of famous musicians? No one
will know until the tapes are played.
The precursor to today's pocket-sized cassette players, the
Blattnerphone is a visual marvel of antique engineering. The
machine was developed by Louis Blattner in England and was first
demonstrated to the public in 1929. It was a breakthrough at the
time because radio stations could broadcast up to 35 minutes of
uninterrupted prerecorded sound. The Blattnerphone was first
used in 1932 during the inaugural broadcast of the BBC Empire
The Blattnerphone in TRL's possession was originally purchased
by the former Postmaster-General's Department, and was later
used by ABC radio. After World War II its capabilities were
rapidly overtaken by more modern technology, and after falling
into disrepair it was handed over to the Museum of Victoria for
preservation. Since then it has been lovingly restored to
working order by skilled technicians at Telecom Research
The information relinquished by the Canadian tapes today will be
faithfully transcribed by Mr Dick, and taken to Canberra to be
presented to enthusiastic delegates attending the International
Association of Sound Archives conference being held from
September 23 to 29.
When : 2:30pm Monday, 21 September 1992
Where: Conference Room, 1st Floor, Building M6
Telecom Research Laboratories
770 Blackburn Road,
Interviews: Mr Ernest Dick, Mr Brian Churchill and Mr John Smyth
will be attending and available for interview.
Released by: Telecom Corporate Affairs Directorate
Date: Monday, 21 September 1992
Enquires: Stephen Nason Science Writer
Telecom Research Laboratories
Tel: (03) 253-6537
Fax: (03) 253-6321