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Widget Of The Week

Protona Minifon Attaché, 1961

Credit for making the first electronic covert audio recording device almost certainly belongs to a German company called Protona, who in the early 1950s developed a tiny pocket size magnetic wire spycorder, aptly named the Minifon Mi51. The simple, robust mechanism, and its ability record for up to four hours was, allegedly, the inspiration for, and partly used in the construction of the first prototype aircraft ‘Black Box’ flight data recorder in 1957, devised by Australian Dr David Warren.

 

Looking at the Minifon Attaché, featured here, it is not difficult to understand what drew Dr Warren to Protona; the design, engineering, build quality and attention to detail of this cute little tape recorder is simply outstanding. It is hard to believe that it was conceived in the late 50s and is now well over half a century old, what’s more it uses a small, conveniently sized tape cassette that pre-dates the Philips Compact Cassette by several years. It also has several clever and innovative features that would not become widespread on tape recorders and electronic gadgets for another decade.

 

Realistically the Minifon Attaché is an item of office equipment, however it is incredibly small -- it fits easily into a coat pocket -- and like the Mi51 before it, probably did its fair share of surveillance recording. It could also be used to record telephone conversations, thanks to a pickup coil built in to one of the optional multi-purpose external speaker microphone modules, which sadly I do not have – mine is the standard model. The two-sided tape cassette has a number of similarities to the Philips Compact Cassette. It is only a little larger, and slightly thicker, mainly due to the fact that it uses 6mm (1/4-inch) wide tape, rather the 3.5mm (1/8th inch) wide tape in a standard cassette. Like Philips machines it uses a capstan drive tape mechanism, cassettes were available in different lengths (30 and 15 minutes per side). Who knows; it is not unreasonable to suppose that Philips engineers were aware of the Protona design and maybe, like Dr Warren, drew some inspiration from it?

 

Other features were well ahead of their time, like the all transistor circuitry. This put it at the cutting edge in the early 60s. Piano key controls were also quite novel, especially on a machine this small, and tape counters and moving coil recoding level/battery meters were comparatively rare on portable machines. Then there are some rather unusual extras, like fast erase. When pressed, a small lever at one end of he tape head cover brings a permanent magnet into contact with the tape and when the machine is in rewind mode it is possible to completely wipe both sides of a cassette in just a couple of minutes. Last but not least, it can be powered by a 12-volt nicad rechargeable battery, or a now obsolete disposable battery. Sixty years ago you could count the number of electronic devices that used rechargeable batteries on the fingers of one hand.      

 

Construction is all metal, from the chassis to the case, and there’s a hefty cylindrical flywheel, to aid speed stability, yet it is surprisingly light. It looks and feels really tough, and the fact that after all these years this one still works perfectly, is a tribute to German precision engineering.

 

I cannot recall exactly when I acquired this particular Attaché, it is a fairly early example and one of several that have passed through my hands over the years, but it was probably more then ten years ago, and came from an early on-line auction when machines like these were cheap and plentiful. Then as now it is in full working order and showed only light signs of use. It came with its custom-made leather case and the purpose designed microphone/speaker, and I would be very surprised if I paid more than £10 for it. 

 

What Happened To It?

As far as I am aware Protona never attempted to turn the Attaché into a mass-market product and its successor, the better specified Hi-Fi model was also aimed, and priced at high end and specialist applications. Needless to say not many were sold and it couldn’t compete with the Philips Compact Cassette, which by the mid 60s had become a world standard. In fact Protona had been struggling for years and it was bought out by Telefunken in 1962. Despite dwindling orders Protona continued to make Minifon models until 1967, when it was eventually closed down.

 

Protona Minifons are not widely known outside of the tape recorder collector and enthusiast markets but the few that come up on ebay are eagerly snapped up, sometimes for hundreds of pounds, depending on their condition and rarity. However, occasional fixer-uppers can still be found for £50 or less, and providing there is no serious damage or corrosion, they can be a good investment. They are fairly easy to work on, a lot of parts are still available and most faults can be fixed, but even dead ones still look great!

0414


GIZMO GUIDE

First seen               1959

Original Price         £300?

Value Today           £50

Features                 Capstan drive, 2-track recording, ¼-inch tape, 6 transistors (3 x OC304, 2 x OC308 1 x OC307), tape counter, battery/recording level meter, auto stop, remote pause/record, piano-key controls, stop, rewind, play, record), volume, full tape erase

Power req.                    Mini Accu 12-volt nicad rechargeable battery/Petrix 27

Dimensions:                  180 x 102 x 44mm

Weight:                          850g

Made (assembled) in:    Germany

Hen's Teeth (10 rarest):  7


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