Cold War Espionage & the 1950s Minifon Wire Recorder

Back in the 1950s and 60s no self-respecting Spy Agency would leave home without their trusted Minifon wire-recorder. Indeed while the Cold War was in full swing, these little devices had the somewhat unique kudos of being used (probably simultaneously) by the CIA, FBI, KGB and Stasi among others. At only 7 inches long and offered with a full range of cool Spy accessories, it is hardly surprising that this range of miniature recorders has come to personify the alluring world of Cold War espionage.

When the Minifon was first released in 1951 it was proudly the world’s smallest recorder and was retailed as an executive level Dictaphone for use in offices, journalism, by insurance claimers, travelling salesmen, law enforcement or in fact anyone who needed to log an accurate copy of their conversations.  In 1955 the p.55 model cost an eye watering $350 (equivalent to £3,300 today), but despite this humble business front, these machines were always designed to be so much more.

Minifon was the brain child of a German electrical engineer Willi Draheim who first began developing his tiny recorder back in 1948. He soon found favour and financing from a Hannovarian businessman named Nikolaus Monske. Monske was drawn to Draheim’s  tiny machine as a way of covertly recording business meetings and more particularly to accurately record his verbal business agreements to prevent any later misunderstandings.  Together with a second financier, the three went into business together, yet only a few years down the line the inventor Draheim sold his shares and moved on to new ventures.

A wire heritage

The Minifon was just one development in the long history of wire recording which dated all the way back to the early days of recorded sound.  The Danish inventor Valdemar Poulson had first come up with and patented a magnetic wire recorder back in 1894, which he then subsequently exhibited and sold under his own brand name of ‘Telegraphone’. In comparison to Edison’s phonographic wax cylinder technology that cut tiny grooves in wax, Poulson’s machine magnetically charged a fine strand of wire which could then be reconverted back into sound waves. The acoustic quality was not as good as wax cylinders, but it was capable of recording for much longer periods of time making it ideal for the burgeoning business dictation scene.

Due to both high costs and reliability issues, Poulson’s Telegraphones never really saw the widescale commercial success he’d always hoped, and his name as an inventor became overshadowed in history by other contemporaries such as Edison and Bell. Yet many understood the potential of Poulson’s ground-breaking idea. It was not until further technological improvements were made during WW2 that wire recording began to be considered suitable for widescale commercial use. As a format wire recording finally had its hiatus during the late 1940s to early 1950s, before being superseded by a complementary format we are now far more familiar with- magnetic tape.

Appeal of the Minifon

Draheim’s simple yet effective trick with the Minifon was to make the wire finer than its competitors and to run at half the speed (11.8 inches per second instead of the usual 24 i.p.s). This meant that it could record up to 2.5 hours of data on one tiny reel and was reputedly able to capture sounds up to 20 feet away. But perhaps just as important as the wire, were the accessories you could get with it. From a discreet lapel microphone or a microphone hidden in a wrist watch, to phone tapping attachments and car chargers, it was always really about the gadgets.

Much like we are experiencing today, the new-found ability to secretly record things began to have much wider social ramifications than just espionage. Indeed although we think of privacy issues as being a decidedly modern problem, discreetly hidden machines like the Minifon helped sow the seeds and test the boundaries in many industries. Even during the early 1950s the use of hidden Minifons at music venues etc was creating enough problems for the music industry to consider how to respond to the piracy of its product.  But alongside the negative implications, positive opportunities emerged also. For instance when David Warren, the inventor of the airplane flight recorder was designing his first Black Box in 1954, he based it around a Minifon machine. Although plastic recording tape was becoming readily available at the time, Warren realised the Minifon’s robustness, size, recording length and ability to survive high temperatures (compared to plastic tape) made it a good match.  When recording sets needed to be sent up into Space as part of the Space Race, wire recorders were the preferred choice once again.

During the 20 or so years that the Minifon range was around it went through various model modifications and came in several specifications aimed either at the curious general public up to the full time security specialist. The sets sold particularly well in both the USA and UK and went from running off tiny glass valves needing three different sizes and voltage of battery per machine to work, to being simplified, transistorised and finally tape driven. Yet despite over 15 years of impressive sales results under their belt, the Minifon finally began to disappear from the shelves from the mid 1960s onwards. Many attribute this decline to the introduction of the new compact cassette format by Phillips which began in 1963 and picked up speed quite rapidly. Compared to the sexy new tape players, the Minifon was sadly an outmoded relic. But despite its ultimate fall from grace, the sheer design, build and audacity of the Minifons (as well as the James Bond like range of accessories) have made them a cult classic today among eager collectors.


A 1967 Minifon Advert attribution: Nesster

Tagged , , , , ,
Translate »