Janine Elliot takes another look at retro audio kit, this time focusing on the rare Tefifon.

I remember being given a device called a Brush-Mail-A-Voice which was a dictation machine like a record player on which you placed a foldable 9” disk with grooves on it that a curvy arm with a magnetic head “stylus” recorded magnetic impulses onto the grooves from a microphone, and then you used the same microphone as a speaker to play it all back. I was only about 4 or 5 at the time and I took it all apart as it didn’t work. Don’t know what happened to it, but it was already 25 years old when I first played with it. That was my first interest in audio, and the device was in some ways the forerunner of the floppy disc or even CD, playing as it did from the centre to the edge. Around this time my mother was a secretary, often typing up words that had been previously recorded onto a Dictaphone “Dictabelt”, a design from 1947-1970, though the belts, a thin plastic belt 3.5-inches wide and 12-inches in circumference could only be recorded once, providing  up to 15 minutes of dictation (30 minutes on the rare long play versions). The recordings are pressed into the plastic by a stylus, a bit like wax cylinders from many years before.  The belts could be folded and recordings could withstand 20 plays before they were unplayable.

Another of my memories from the past was the 8 track player, playing a single ¼” tape which played at 3 3/4ips feeding tape from the centre of the “reel” and feeding it back to the edge. It meant that 8 different pieces could be on each track of the single reel of tape, with a length of metal foil joining the tape together and telling the head to move to the next track, and all held inside a cartridge. The design originated in 1952 by American Bernard Cousino, and a similar design called the Fidelipac was used by me and other broadcasters and DJs until the 1990’s, commonly called “cart machines”. The original idea of an endless cartridge comes from 1946 from a certain William Powell Lear, the inventor later of the Lear Jet, with an endless steel wire, itself based on an idea by Western Electric/AT&T Technology from 1933. Indeed the idea of a cartridge containing tape is a fascinating and complicated study.  Whilst some of us remember buying 8 track or stereo 4-track machines before cassettes tapes (invented in 1962) took over, round this time there are several other recording/playback mediums that have tried and failed. Things like the Fidelipac (1959), the PlayTape (1966), Mail Call Letterpack (late 60’s), and the RCA Victor Sound Tape Cartridge (1958) which was a 5”x7” tape cartridge with ¼ inch tape looking much like the Sony Elcaset which morphed in 1976. But before all that was a unique playback system that was a cross between the tape cartridge and the record.

"120512-Tefifon-07" by BlueBreezeWiki - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:120512-Tefifon-07.jpg#/media/File:120512-Tefifon-07.jpg

“120512-Tefifon-07” by BlueBreezeWiki – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:120512-Tefifon-07.jpg#/media/File:120512-Tefifon-07.jpg

With a name that sounds more like a material for saucepans, the Tefifon from 1952 is quite a cute little German invention that, well, unlike everything today never quite made itself past the borders. Only in America was it slightly successful under the “Westrex” name, a subsidiary of Western Electric. A decidedly curvy little plastic number and looking more like a toy for young girl, this device had cartridges, called “Tefi’s” that played like those 8 track cartridges, and similar to the Dictaphone Dictabelt, the cassette “tape” was red plastic with grooves like a record that the stylus head played.  The Tefifon format itself was originally thought of and developed by the German entrepreneur Dr. Karl Daniel and his “Tefi” company in 1936.


“Tefifon 4078533” by Bobo11 – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Tefifon_4078533.JPG#/media/File:Tefifon_4078533.JPG


“Tefi Holiday Super II v” by Norbert Schnitzler – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Tefi_Holiday_Super_II_v.jpg#/media/File:Tefi_Holiday_Super_II_v.jpg

The Tefofon was amazingly good quality, and the tape could last as long as 4 hours, an amazing achievement for the time. A whole Wagner Ring Cycle could fit into four tapes! Each size of tape was a different length of tape, with the smallest being 15minutes. Bear in mind in 1952 most people were used to 78ips shellac which lasted only 4 minutes!  This invention was therefore an amazing achievement for the time. You clicked in the cartridge, pulled out the plastic tape around the roller and pressed in the head and it started playing. The plastic tape was actually an endless groove, so unlike the 8 track, you just pressed play and it worked its way to the end, rather than you or a sensor switching tracks. Roughly speaking, if you play the looped tape once through, a four hour loop would take around four minutes to loop, which would mean there must be 60 “grooves” on the plastic tape. Some models even had a remote control (though on a lead) to move the head up or down, in case you wanted to miss sections, or you could just move a wheel on the device to move the head, a pick-up cartridge on its side, up or down.

Most Tefi’s started with an introductory chime to let you know it’s the beginning, and at the end was a looped “chime” to warn you that it is the end and give you time to get off your chair and switch it all off. Whilst only mono the sound quality was amazingly good. What let it down was the bad distribution and promotion, and because of this the fact the library of recorded music wasn’t that great either. Perhaps memories of the Second World War had a part in its failure abroad as well. Such a shame! This was a great idea, just as the DCC I wrote about a few months ago, and it could have been big.  The last incarnation of the Tefifon format was in 1961, when they introduced stereo sound, but again even this was not commercially successful, so Tefifon production was wound up, like the tape itself, in 1965.

Janine Elliot

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