A recent NPR story on a project using vintage 1930s recording equipment featured a device that plays a big part in “Calvin Cobb: Radio Woodworker!” The portable Presto acetate disc recorder was used by folklorist Alan Lomax to record musicians such as Leadbelly in the last years of the great Depression. The NPR story covered the Presto’s role in music recording, but left out its part in recording one of the great tragedies of that era, the 1937 explosion of the airship Hindenburg.
The Presto disc recorder was a game changer in 1937; it was a 50-pound portable machine that could produce high-quality audio recordings on location. Two reporters from Chicago had traveled to New Jersey to cover the arrival of the Hindenburg and interview the Chicago passengers. As they described the approach of the great airship, it exploded and burned with such force it knocked the cutting needle momentarily out of the track on the acetate disc. The recording they made “…all the humanity!” is one of the most memorable of the 20th century.
Eluding the German agents that tried to confiscate the recordings, the two made it back to Chicago, and the next day the recordings were heard on radio receivers in millions of homes around the world. It was a shocking moment that changed broadcasting. Prior to that time, the networks suppressed any use of recorded media on radio. Everything on radio was performed live over wirelines that the networks controlled. The broadcast of the Hindenburg recordings helped break down the barriers to recorded or “transcribed” programming from that time on.
This change in the broadcasting game plays heavily in “Calvin Cobb: Radio Woodworker!” In the story, the Hindenburg recordings make it possible for Calvin’s show “Grandpa Sam’s Woodshop of the Air” to be distributed to radio stations on records, rather than be presented live. Today, everyone knows to be very careful about what they allow to be recorded – but in 1937, this was all new! Once the records were out there, just like Facebook posts today, there was no way to get them back!
— Roy Underhill
To hear the NPR story on the Presto disc recorder, follow this link:http://www.npr.org/2014/02/17/277548570/that-old-time-sound-captured-live-in-the-moment
To read more about Presto recorders, click here.