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Accoson Sphygmomanometer

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Widget Of The Week

Sony TC-50 Cassette Recorder, 1968

In flight entertainment takes on a whole new meaning with this unassuming Sony cassette tape recorder. It’s the TC-50, and you can judge how important it is from the fact that it has been exhibited in some of the world’s most prestigious museums, including the US National Air and Space Museum, and the Science Museum in London. In flight entertainment, in this context, is a tad more ambitious than those the (mostly) awful long-haul seatback offerings, it’s to the Moon and back as this was the cassette recorder of choice for NASA’s Apollo programme.

 

What makes this cassette recorder even more unusual is the fact that the machines that went into space were essentially the same as the ones you could buy over the counter. Normally the ancillary equipment that goes up in rockets either has to be specially designed or heavily modified in order to be ‘qualified’ for use in space vehicles. According to NASA documents (Handbook of Pilot Operational Equipment for Manned Space Flight), the only changes made to the stock TC-50 was the addition of a metal label on the cassette compartment door, with some simple operating instructions, and the jacks for the remote control, microphone, monitor and external power input were covered in sticky tape, as they wouldn’t be needed during flight operations.

 

The TC-50 was one of the earliest of Sony’s portable cassette recorders that led eventually to the revolutionary and iconic Walkman personal stereo player. However, in 1968, when it first appeared, entertainment probably wasn’t high on the list of intended applications; basically it was a pocket-able dictating machine, and NASA doubtless meant it to be used for note taking but the astronauts found it useful for playing their mix tapes to while away the hours of their long journey. In the photo that’s Lunar Module pilot Eugene Cernan holding a TC-50, alongside Command Module pilot John W. Young on board Apollo 10 in May 1969).

 

NASA’s decision to use this machine is not difficult to understand; it is superbly well made -- by then Sony’s reputation for design and engineering was well established. The large, simple controls made it easy to use, clearly an important consideration if you happened to be wearing a cumbersome space suit and gloves, but above all, it was tough and reliable, again a major plus point for space voyagers as Sony Service centres are a bit thin on the ground, once you leave Earth orbit.

 

Speaking of controls, there are only three of them, for the transport functions. The large shiny-topped sliding lever selects Stop and Forward modes; to record press the red button before sliding the lever and pressing the small black button in Stop mode engages Rewind, or Fast Forward in Play mode. The only other control is a volume thumbwheel, mounted just above the tape compartment flap. The microphone is built into the front of the case, there’s a 50mm speaker on the backside and on the top there is a tiny round meter showing battery condition and recording level, not that you could do much about is as it is controlled automatically.

 

There are a few points of interest inside the case and first off is the D-201 motor, in its own way a minor technical marvel, and famed for its speed stability and reliability. You can just make it out in the photo and unusually it is angled at around 45 degrees to the case. Whether this was deliberate, or forced upon the designers by the confines of the case has never been explained but the result was that it in this orientation it was less prone to wow and flutter, if the machine was rapidly moved or shaken. Sadly history doesn't tell us if this was an advantage in zero gravity. The circuit board is densely packed; I recall read somewhere that it uses integrated circuits. They were certainly around in the late 60s but it would have been very unusual to see them in consumer products like this. Maybe they were used on later versions but this one at least has only discrete components. Fortunately it is in good working order as thanks to the complex wiring loom and watch-like construction, repairing one would be a nightmare!

 

Power is supplied by a proprietary NiCad re-chargeable battery pack (BP10) and the one that came with this specimen would have expired decades ago but for once it is not a problem. Inside the pack, which opens easily, there is a compartment for three AA sided cells and it’s a simple matter to pop in a set of modern replacements. I suspect that a purpose-made AA adaptor was either supplied or offered as an optional extra. It comes with a mains charger adapter and Sony showed considerable foresight by fitting it with a voltage selector switch (100/110-120/220-240V), so that it could be used anywhere in the world; at the time mains adaptors tended to be made for the country – and mains supply -- where the product was originally sold.

 

All things considered, and after almost half a century, performance is pretty good and although it was designed primarily for voice recording, it has a decent enough stab at reproducing music; it is certainly good enough for use in spacecraft, which are probably not the most acoustically-friendly of environments  

 

I have been trying to fill the TC-50 sized gap in my collection for some time and have, until recently, been put off by the usually ridiculously high prices being asked (and paid) for them. Most of the world’s supply of this model appear to be in the US and ebay sellers tend to shamelessly capitalise on the Apollo connection but a few made it to Europe, and somehow this one ended up in Belgium and eventually on ebay, where I bought it, with no competing bids, for the amazingly low price of 20 euros. It came with the original NiCad battery pack, leather carry case and mains charger and all of them were in excellent condition. It worked straight away but as a precaution the drive belt was checked and key moving parts treated to a spot of light grease.

 

What Happened To It?

There is a short history of the TC line of recorders in the TC-55 write up further down the page and the gist of it is that it was part of the evolutionary process that resulted in the TPS-L2, the first Walkman, and the birth of the personal stereo revolution. Its role in the Apollo program and later space missions has been largely unsung, and surprisingly it wasn’t something that Sony capitalised upon, though this may have been a contractual obligation but it has definitely earned its place in museums, and the history of the cassette recorder.

 

Prices vary widely and even in poor condition they can make your eyes water. I have seen absolute wrecks selling for as much as £50, though runners in fair condition usually go for between £50 and £100 and really clean and boxed examples can make £200 or more. There is no disputing the fact that is a historically significant machine but a fair number were made, a lot have have survived and as this one proves there are still some bargains around, but be warned, as time goes by they are becoming much harder to find.


GIZMO GUIDE

First seen         1968

Original Price   £50?

Value Today     £50–£200 (1014)

Features           Mono two-track recording, built in microphone and 50mm speaker, battery state & recording level meter, Play/Record, FF/Rew functions, volume control. Sockets: external remote pause (2.5mm jack), external microphone and headphone/monitor (3.5mm jack), external DC supply. Accessories: wrist lanyard, leather case, battery pack, mains adaptor/charger

Power req.                     4.5 volts DC, (BP-10 battery pack containing 3 x AA NiCad cells)

Dimensions:                   140 x 90 x 37mm 

Weight:                          600g

Made (assembled) in:    Japan

Hen's Teeth (10 rarest):  7


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