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Chapter2   "This is The Product We Must a Produce"

"This is The Product We Must a Produce"

Inside the company in its early days.
Inside the company in its early days.

Due to its business connections with the Occupation Forces, Totsuko decided to work on a magnetic sound recorder.
Masaru Ibuka had always wanted to produce something that would directly benefit the general public, who's needs were quite different from the government and other institutional customers. But it was not just any product that Ibuka wanted. Radios had already been introduced by large companies. Akio Morita was then also looking, purely from a business point of view, for a product with which Totsuko could expand its sales channels beyond NHK. It was then that the wire recorder caught the attention of both Ibuka and Morita.

The Totsuko engineers acted quickly once they had made up their mind and research got under way immediately. Masanobu Tada of Nipon Electric Co.(NEC Corporation) was kind enough to bring in a wire recorder unit, saying, "You might find this interesting." It had been used by the Japanese Army during the war. Totsuko disassembled the unit at once and studied its recording and playback mechanisms. Around the same time, a friend in the United States gave Morita a Webster's recorder kit that used stainless steel wire. The kit had a simple reel winding mechanism with a recording head. It was Nobutoshi Kihara(now President of Sony-Kihara Laboratory) who completed the kit assembly with an amplifier. The first thing they recorded was NHK's news broadcast of a Japanese swimmer Hironoshin Furuhashi setting a new world record at an all-American aquatic championships meet at Los Angeles.

Incidentally, Kihara had been one of Ibuka's students in the electricity course at the Mechanical Engineering Department of Waseda University. Prior to graduation, Kihara noticed a Totsuko help-wanted ad at the school. Out of fun and curiosity, Kihara went for an interview, the only form of employment examination at the time. His resume listed special skills related only to electricity and stated, "I can make shortwave receivers, five-tube superheterodyne radios and hi-fi amplifiers." Going over the resume Higuchi, the interviewer, said to Kihara, "You can handle electricity, yet you majored in mechanical engineering. You are a funny person."

Totsuko employees on a recreationnal trip(Morita and Ibuka in the front row, first and second from r
Totsuko employees on a recreationnal trip(Morita and Ibuka in the front row, first and second from right, respectively).

This "funny" man who had come to Totsuko out of curiosity stayed on, destined to work on both the wire and tape recorders.

While still working hard on the wire recorder, Totsuko heard of a machine that could reproduce sound on tape. At that time, Ibuka and Morita frequently visited the Occupation Forces headquartered in the NHK building. One day, a member of the Civil Information and Education (CIE) section showed them this tape recorder. The sound was remarkably better than that of a wire recorder. "This is it.This is what we ought to produce for consumer market. It has great potential. Let's do it with tape," said Ibuka. The wire recorder was thus completely forgotten.

Making Magnetic Powder

Directors at the time the company was founded.
Directors at the time the company was founded. The company was facing constant cash-flow problems.

Deeply impressed by the sound recorded on tape, Ibuka and Morita resolved to make a tape recorder no matter how difficult it might be. First, they managed to get an Occupation Force officer to bring a tape recorder to Totsuko so their colleagues could listen to its superior sound. But even more importantly, they had to persuade their accounting staff.

One day, Ibuka and Morita came to see Shozaburo Tachikawa, saying, "We are now planning to make a tape recorder. Could you arrange to get 300,000yen ready for us?" Tachikawa was at a loss for words. Even though Totsuko had been doing good business with NHK, 300,000yen was no small sum. Ibuka and Morita had been nonchalant, but for accountants like Tachikawa and Hasegawa it was not an amount readily available.

After having them listen to the tape recorder, Ibuka and Morita took the two accountants to a nice restaurant and presented their case. Impressed by the tape recorder's good potential, Tachikawa and Junichi Hasegawa were finally convinced.

The tape recorder had just been developed and was a rarity even in the United States. Thus,no-one had thought to produce one in Japan. The only reference book available, "Onkyo Kogaku"(Acoustic Engineering), by Dr. Yasujiro Niwa, merely said: "In 1936 AEG Germany invented a tape recorder that used plastic tape which was coated with magnetic material."

What would be suitable as a tape base or as magnetic material? The Totsuko engineers had to start from scratch. Assuming that any magnetic powder substance would do, they first tried an OP magnet, which had been invented by Dr. Yogoro Kato of the Tokyo Institute of Technology. Ibuka obtained a stick-shaped piece of this material, and Kihara ground it to powder in a mortar for an hour or so. They agreed to coat this powder on an 8mm wide slip of leftover print-out paper from the Hell Schreiber telegraphic machine. "But how can we coat it?," they asked themselves. After thinking about it long and hard, they kneaded cooked rice into a paste and applied the powder onto the paper with the rice paste. They tested their tape on the Occupation Forces'recorder, but it produced only a harsh noise. Although OP magnetic powder can be used today to make metal tape, at that time it was technically impossible to make a magnetic head to record or erase such a tape, because the OP magnet was too powerful.

The Totsuko engineers learned from this experiment that a tape recorder would not require such strong magnetic material. This explained why stainless steel was used in the wire recorder. They started looking for much weaker magnetic material. They finally came across a reference to a very promising chemical called oxalic ferrite, which the book said would become ferric oxide when burned. "This is it!" Kihara exclaimed.

However, it was next to impossible to find oxalic ferrite on the market right after the war. Morita volunteered to help Kihara find it. They both went off at once, riding a street car to Kanda to scout the pharmaceutical wholesaler district. Morita always acted quickly in this kind of situation. After a long search, they finally found the only store that handled it. They bought two reagent bottles of powdered oxalic ferrite and brought them back to the company conduct further experiments.

The oxalic ferrite needed distilling, but there was no such thing then as an electric furnace. So they borrowed a frying pan from the kitchen to roast the yellowish powder with a wooden spoon. Watching its color carefully, they roasted it until it turned brown and black and then put it in water to prevent it from spraying into the air. The brown was ferric oxide and the black was ferrous tetroxide. If it was roasted longer, it would mix with oxygen in the air and solidify into colcothar, which is often used as a metal polisher. Kihara had a fine eye for color and could remove the frying pan from the fire at just the right moment. The necessary magnetic powder was thus prepared.

Trial and Errors

The Yama-no-ue factory.

With the magnetic powder in hand, the next question was,how to coat it onto the tape. At first, Ibuka and his staff tried conventional methods, coating the tape with a spray gun. They also dissolved the powder in transparent lacquer and sprayed the liquid with a spray gun. The finished tape would barely reproduce audible sound. In addition, more material would be sprayed away from, rather than onto, the paper and thus produced an uneven surface.

This spray-gun coating technique was tried at the newly-established Yama-no-ue factory. Still empty, spacious, and with a brand new floor, it proved to be just right for making the new tape. One day Kihara, so absorbed in his work and eager to proceed, laid the paper on the floor and started to spray the liquid powder onto it. Naturally the brand new floor was blackened by the spraying and Kihara was severely scolded by Akira Higuchi.

Ibuka learned somewhere that a hairbrush made of badger's hair would be ideal for coating. Kihara bought one in Ueno for 800yen, which was a considerable sum for Totsuko. He stretched the paper tape on the floor and, like a machine, brushed on the magnetic powder coating. But this made little difference from the spray-gun method.
Kihara changed the tape width, as he thought 8mm was too wide. He changed it to 6mm -- actually a quarter of an inch, but nobody realized it at that time. How could one reduce the width by 2mm without the slightest fluctuation in width or notches? Place two razor blades exactly 6mm apart from each other and pull the paper tape along and through the blades. That was the manual tape cutting machine.

After further experimentation, Kihara realized that the finer the magnetic powder, the better the tape performance would be. However, no one knew how to make such fine powder. At that time a company called Papilio Cosmetics frequently ran newspaper ads for face powder, with a microphotograph which compared the finesse of its product with those of its competitors. " That's it! " thought Kihara.

Believing that Totsuko could obtain the know-how to make fine powder from this cosmetics company, Morita went to see the president of Papilio Cosmetics immediately, even though he had never met him before.
" Our company is now developing a sound recording machine, " Morita briefly explained. " Since we are not in the cosmetics business, could you kindly instruct us on how to produce fine powder? " " How fine will your powder have to be? " Papilio's president asked. " Well, it must be 3,000 to 4,000 mesh, " Morita replied. Upon hearing this the president laughed, saying, " That's a totally different level, Mr. Morita than what we produce. If a woman applied 'oshiroi' of that fineness it would be too light to stay on her face. It would just fly off like dust, you know! "

Totsuko continued the process of trial and error, but prpblems kept arising where Ibuka and Morita least expected them.

Talking Paper "Completed"

The first prototype tape recorder.

Extensive research resulted in improvements in the magnetic powder and tape base material, and problems were resolved one by one. To test the tape, Kihara made a simple apparatus. He put two standard 78rpm record turntables side by side and affixed a hub, about 3cm in diameter, to the center of one turntable and a reel on the other turntable, attaching the tape end to each. The tape would run by revolving the turntables. A magnetic head placed between the turntables would record onto the tape. It was a very primitive apparatus, with the 10m tape being rewound manually. Kihara would record the phrase " Honjitsu wa seiten nari " (" The weather is good today "), and then play it back. He said to himself, " Yes, I can hear it! "

Now that this primitive apparatus finally worked, Totsuko decided to start designing a marketable tape recorder. Kihara went to NHK to see the actual tape recorder. Just a glance at this machine told him everything he needed to know. " So this is how the machine works, " he thought. His previous work on the wire recorder and his own primitive machine had given him a solid grounding in the principles involved.

Returning home from NHK, Kihara worked all night and came up with a design for a tape recorder. The next day, working together with a machine operator at Totsuko, he began to manufacture the recorder himself. Skilled as any craftsmen, they used a lathe to make capstans, flywheels and other parts, and created a prototype recorder in just one week. The most difficult task was finding the right motor and rubber. There was no motor strong enough to drive a tape recorder. With no alternative, Kihara decided to use a weak induction motor. Fujiya Electric Co., Ltd. was then producing induction motors for use with record turntables. However, the motor speed easily changed whenever the voltage or the frequency fluctuated, and natural rubbers, which was the only type rubber available, easily stretched and snapped.

Prototype magnetic tape and magnetic powder

The first prototype Kihara made was a vertically designed tape recorder modeled after the " Magnecorder, " which had already been put to practical use in the United States. Completed in September 1949, this prototype was followed by G- and A-type prototypes in January and February of 1950, respectively. Totsuko was thus making steady progress toward the creation of the first tape recorder to be marketed in Japan.

The G-type was designed for institutional use, with a recording time of one hour while the A-type was designed for home-use, with a recording time of 30 minutes. Although the A-type product did not advance beyond prototype stage, its concept was fully incorporated into the H-type, which later marketed as the first home-use tape recorder. In this way, the G-type product was completed.
In marketing the G-type tape recorder, Totsuko registered it under the trademark name of " Tapecorder. " At the same time, the Totsuko tape was commercially named " SONI-TAPE. "

  • Tape recorder G-type
    Tape recorder G-type

The March 15, 1950 edition of the Mainichi Graph magazine carried an article with a photograph of Totsuko's " Tapecorder. " It read, " This is a tape recording machine soon to be mass-produced in Japan. It may well be called ' Talking Paper '... According to the manufacturer, it will prove very handy wherever it is used, and ' talking magazines ' and ' talking newspapers ' will become a reality in the future. " The caption uncannily forecast that, " The phonograph may well be replaced by this machine eventually. "

A year had gone by since Ibuka first recognized the importance of tape recorders. The diligent research and countless number of trial and error stages had finally paid off for Totsuko.

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