AES Historical Committee

Celebration of Larry Miller’s Restoration
of Stanford University Libraries’
Ampex Magnetic Tape Recorder, Model 200A.
Stanford University, 2012 November 13
by John Leslie

It is wonderful to see the Libraries’ Ampex Model 200A restored so completely. Larry accomplished what I would have believed to be next to impossible. I am amazed that he could even find replacement parts for this 64 year-old recorder. But knowing Larry, he likes to do the impossible!

The Model 200A is an important part of the history of magnetic tape recording. When it was introduced to the World in 1948, it very quickly revolutionized both the radio broadcasting industry and the audio recording industry. For those of you who are not familiar with the background of Ampex and magnetic recording, I want to give you a brief history of the early years of Ampex.

There are five people who were major contributors to the development of the Model 200A recorder: (1) Alexander Poniatoff, who was president of Ampex Corporation (for those not familiar with Ampex, the name comes from Alex’s initials AMP followed by EX for excellence); (2) Jack Mullin, who was a major with the US Army Signal Corps; (3) Harold Lindsay, a mechanical engineer at Ampex; (4) Myron Stolaroff, an electrical engineer at Ampex; and last but not least, (5) Bing Crosby.

During  WWII, Jack Mullin was stationed in England and often heard classical music, broadcast by German radio, that sounded so good that it might be from “live” performances. He found that hard to believe and wondered how they did it!

After the War, the Signal Corps asked Jack to go into Germany and explore their electronic activities. He discovered that Germany had developed a magnetic tape recorder that they called a Magnetophon, and it was used for the broadcasts he had heard in England. Jack received permission to bring two of the recorders home to San Francisco.

Now for the Ampex part of story: During the War, Alex Poniatoff’s little company manufactured small electric motors for military applications. When the War ended, orders for the motors dropped sharply and Alex was searching for a new product, or products, for his company to manufacture.

Now back to Jack Mullin; May 16th, 1946, he gave a demonstration of his Magnetophon to a group of electrical engineers in San Francisco. All of us, who were present, were amazed at the sound quality of the music Jack had recorded. Alex Poniatoff did not attend that meeting, but when he heard about it, he called Jack and arranged a private showing. Jack demonstrated the Magnetophon to Alex and Ampex’s engineers – Harold Lindsay and Myron Stolaroff. Shortly after that meeting, Alex, Harold and Myron decided they could design and manufacture a still better recorder than the Magnetophon!

Ampex began the new venture: Harold did the mechanical engineering and Myron, the electrical and electronic engineering. It was long hours and hard work! Throughout the development process, Jack Mullin was both a great friend and a great help!

In October 1947, Ampex had a prototype of the Model 200A that outperformed the Magnetophon, and they were sure it would be a great success if they had the money to produce it. By that time, Jack Mullin was using his two Magnetophons to record Bing Crosby’s radio shows at Bing’s ABC studio in Hollywood. Jack thought if would be good to demonstrate the Ampex Recorder to Bing.

The bottom line is that Bing Crosby placed an order to Ampex for 20 recorders at $4,000 each with a 60% down payment. In that way, Bing helped finance Ampex’s first production-run of 20 recorders. In April 1948, Ampex delivered the first production Model 200A to Jack Mullin, and a few days later, the second. These were serials numbers 1 and 2. They were used to retire Jack’s two Magnetophons that by that time were mighty tired and difficult to keep working properly.  

When ABC learned how well the Ampex 200A performed, they wanted 10 as quickly as they could get them. They wanted to use them for recording broadcasts to the East and then play them back 3 hours later for broadcasts to the West. Bing Crosby helped ABC by selling 10 of his 20 to them. The Libraries’ Model 200A that Larry Miller restored is serial # 3, and was delivered to ABC in April 1948.

The 200A was the forerunner of a long series of Ampex tape recorders for recording studio, radio, television, instrumentation, and military applications. The Ampex Model 200A began it all!

AES - Audio Engineering Society