Buckminster Fuller on a long thin wire

July 31, 2020
Geoff Willard
Fuller wire

Buckminster Fuller has loomed large over the Stanford Media Preservation Lab ever since his archives were fully processed and described in the mid-2000s. Over the past eight years we've been slowly reformatting the extensive media component of this collection, but there was one media format that remained elusive: wire. A magnetic recording format that predated open reel tape, wires had their heyday in the 1940s and 50s. For someone like Fuller, a man who could talk at length extemporaneously, wires were a compact recording medium that could accomodate his long, uninterrupted lectures. These 100 items were the earliest audio documentation we had from him, and they were clearly a preservation priority given the obsolescence of the format. 

Among Stanford's archival holdings, wires are very uncommon. Rather than invest in playback capability in-house, we experimented with outsourcing in 2012-2013. In order to properly evaluate the capabilities of our vendor's playback systems, we sent the same wire to three different businesses. The results varied widely, with two vendors using original equipment and the third using a tape recorder modified for wire playback. Here is a comparison of the three:

The difference between the original recorders (first two examples) and the tape recorder (last example) was striking. We would have moved forward with reformatting the whole lot in 2013, but funds were not available at the time. Still, it was clear that a novel approach to wire playback was necessary for extracting maximum fidelity from this format.

Wires took a backseat for a number of years, but our interest was rekindled thanks to a chance encounter with a vendor we weren't familiar with when the wire tests were first done. Endpoint Audio Labs, an advanced transfer and restoration facility in Burbank, CA, helped us tackle another relatively obscure format in 2018: Magnabelt. Using their custom built cylinder player as the playback platform, they proved that using new equipment could elevate this humble dictation medium, a successor to wires in many offices of the 1960s, far beyond what an original player could produce. Towards the end of our Magnabelt project, Endpoint informed us they had a new wire playback machine that was a big improvement over what we had sampled back in 2012-2013. A test Fuller wire was quickly dispatched. Upon hearing the returned file, it was obvious this new machine was a huge leap forward.

Thanks to generous financial support from Richenda Brim and the Preservation Department, we were able to finally reformat these early audio artifacts using the most advanced wire playback technology. The Fuller wire recordings can now be streamed in the Special Collections reading room at Green Library.