The Magic Ear

Sometime during or near World War II, the Germans had developed the machine that recorded audio on paper tape. In 1948, the first consumer audio tape recorder, the “Brush Sound Mirror,” was introduced in the United States, and the Minnesota Mining Company began coating iron oxide on paper tape for use in it. There were no professional machines of any kind, although one electronics expert in Hollywood was converting the Sound Mirror for the radio show called “Candid Mike,” an eavesdropping show produced by radio producer and star Allan Funt in New York. Funt staged and recorded comical real-life situations with a hidden microphone. He then edited the tape by cutting it with scissors and pasting the desired ends together with sticky tape on the non-oxide side. It was a very popular show, and it was the forerunner of Candid Camera on television. Candid Mike was on the air on radio during our time in Africa. The tape recorder’s predecessor was a recorder which magnetize a fine strand of wire as it passed through a recording head while being pulled from one reel to another. The wire recorder system had one great fault in its design: the wire tended to twist as it traveled through the playback head and thereby introduced various distortions to the recorded sound. However, for home recording, it was the state-of-the-art at the time Gatti picked up a consumer machine known as the Webster Wire Recorder and dubbed it the “Magic Ear.” He must have paid cash money for it, because Gatti always referred to it as the “Magic Ear” and never as the “Webster,” as was his advertising custom for donated products. At first our commander had grand plans for the Magic Ear; he visualized our recording the native music of the African veldt and selling it to a record company that could produce phonograph records to be sold by the thousands. We tried it out by recording natives singing, but the inherent distortion problems of the wire method were so strong that the plan was quickly dropped. Gatti also held fast to his idea that we could record local ham radio contacts while Bob was on the climb of Mount Kilimanjaro, and then play them back over the air like an entertainment radio program. “People by the thousands will be listening to us,” Gatti said to me one day. I had my doubts, so I tried to explain the problems of doing it. The immediate problem was the fact that the electronic connections to tie the recording machine to the ham equipment had not been properly engineered and wired to make it possible, and there were no electronic stores in the Tanganyika native villages to quickly secure the necessary parts to make the connections. “All you have to do,” said problem-solving Gatti simply, “is hold the microphone up to the loud speaker and record Leo’s talk from Kilimanjaro; then play it back and hold the ham radio microphone up to the wire recorder speaker and let the sound go on the air to the thousands of people listening in as we broadcast from the top of Africa!” In his mind there were no problems; in practicality, it was hard to do because the rewinding of the recorded wire to a specific spot for playback was a hit or miss, a mostly miss proposition. In addition, the wire was not editable, you couldn’t cut it like audio tape. With marginal sound quality and the editing problem, the use of the Magaic-Ear wire recorder was minimal. A second recording device on the expedition was the Audograph, a dictating machine system that Gatti used in his home town office for letter-writing purposes. He had a pair of these machines, one in his trailer office and the other for Doug Edwards, the young British secretary hired in Mombasa to accompany the expedition. The Audograph recorded on a thin plastic record, and the quality of the sound reproduction left something to be desired. Playback sounded like it was coming over a noisy telephone line. Edwards was a British subject who had recently immigrated to Mombasa. He was a slim, handsome, London-born Englishman. He came to Africa with a fiery red MG sports car that reflected his personality. He joined the expedition for the adventure in it, but spent his time working in Gatti’s office doing secretarial work. He kept talking about his MG as if he really missed having it to run around in. “You’ll have to see my sports car,” Edwards often said, “I could really tear up the red dust of Africa around here with that machine!” I had the feeling that it was the only MG “A” in Kenya, Tanganyika, or Uganda, and he was proud of it. Damn proud of it, might be a better line.


Gatti and I were not really seeing eye-to-eye about our ham radio activities. He continually wanted to use the ham radio as a cheap telephone to the United States, and/or the rest of the world for that matter. He had the idea that the word “amateur” in amateur radio was not valid, and that ownership of the station equipment was all that was required to use it like a private “Ma Bell” system for business as well as social contacts. Gatti had somehow managed to get our ham licenses for the three countries issued to the expedition, except that the licensee named on the license was actually William D. Snyder, not Attilio Gatti or the Gatti- Hallicrafters African Expedition. The international agreements under which ham radio operates globally specifies that licenses must be issued to individuals, not corporations. The notes from Gatti flowed into our camp in an almost continuous stream. He was a detail man, pure and simple. Notes with instructions like this were common: “Tomorrow, with help of one driver, have interior of Shack (sic) really ‘spick and span’, washing with petrol all stains on walls, tables, etc.” And he was continually thinking of the resale value of everything in the expedition. Notice the ending of this paragraph in one note: “Fix up something, really working, to hold your door in position, when open—without scratching paint, etc.” His notes also were loaded with messages to people in the United States. For example: “Give message to Schult (the trailer manufacturer) that we need ice cube trays for the 2 refrigerators.” When the trailers were delivered to Gatti in the states they apparently had only one tray, but there was room for two in the ice making compartment. One note had these two instructions: “As soon as possible, Mrs. Gatti would like to talk to her sister (Mrs. Negus—see address book) in Springfield, Missouri. Remember Mr. and Mrs. Riches will be here at 9:30 p.m. to talk to Appleby in Chicago.” Gatti was making friends with the local European citizens by offering phone patches to them. But it was his own private conversations that were bothering me. On February 22 he had this in his instructions: “Keep in mind my urgency of talking to Mills and Fliesler in NYC and to Meigs in Derby Line. I will be back around 4:30 p.m. waiting for this contact.” Arch Oboler, the radio playwright of considerable fame, was an ardent reader of True magazine. He had seen the so-called contest ad for photographers and contacted Gatti about the possibility of joining the expedition while it was in Africa. I gathered from my conversations with Gatti, and confirmed months later by my travels with Arch Oboler himself, that Gatti would be glad to supply Oboler with cameramen, hunters, and anything else he wanted, for a healthy fee of Yankee money. Gatti’s eye’s lit up every time he mentioned the name of the radio playwright. Oboler and his wife, Eleanor, were apparently on their way to Mombasa aboard the American South African Line vessel “African Planet.” Gatti knew this fact because of a rumor picked up by the explorer’s agent, Bill Fleisler, in New York. Gatti kept asking Bob and me to look for a ham station in Capetown who could contact Oboler when the Planet docked in the South African city. “I’ve got to talk to Oboler,” he said to me more than once, “he represents a lot of money for the expedition. He wants to make radio broadcast recordings of African natives doing their singing and dancing, and we can certainly do that for him with my wire recorder.” “I don’t think your wire recorder, Mr. Gatti,” I said cautiously, “is anywhere near broadcast quality. It’s full of distortion due to the wire rotation.” “Nobody cares about rotation; if the sound comes from Africa, that’s all that counts,” Gatti brushed me off confidently. I didn’t want to carry the conversation on farther, but Gatti didn’t drop the subject. He added, “Oboler’s ship is supposed to be in Capetown on March 3rd, and I’ve got to talk to him. Is it possible?” “I doubt it, but we can try.” All I could think of was the constant wish of the commander to talk business on the ham bands. It bothered me immensely, so one day when the Commander seemed particularly mellow, I brought up the subject of FCC laws and regulation. I quietly outlined the United States regulation that strictly forbids the use of ham radio to do business of any kind. In that respect, I was not completely aware of the laws of each country we were in, but I assumed they were the same as the USA, because the United Kingdom was a subscriber to the various conventions under which amateurs around the world communicate. The original intent of ham radio was not to replace commercial communications; it was to be only a world-wide universal hobby. Gatti listened to me intently, but I could see ire bubbling up through his psyche, and it wasn’t long before multiple pulses of adrenalin sent him out the door of the ham shack. He contained his latent anger rather well, but I suspected I would hear from him shortly. With the amateur radio world listening to our every word, neither Bob nor I wanted to violate the amateur spirit in any way whatever. I was particularly thinking of our sponsors, the Hallicrafters Company in Chicago. The ham station we contacted there was operating in the Hallicrafters’ offices and was being advertised and promoted heavily, so the licensee there could be vulnerable for FCC disciplinary actions. Gatti, regardless of what we told him, seemed not to care for anyone but Attilio Gatti. We had been ballyhooing over the ten meter phone band that members of the expedition were going to climb Mount Kilimanjaro almost from our first day on the air from Kenya. We had created an intense interest in the climb, so when the climbers were ready to take off, the world was ready to listen for their accomplishments. Up to that point, I had climbed only one mountain in my lifetime: Electric Peak in Yellowstone Park, a ten thousand foot piece of real estate that provided the climber with only a healthy walk, not an inch of industrial strength rock climbing was involved. Electric Peak, named for its lighting attraction properties during stormy weather, was next to my grandfather’s ranch in Montana. It was riding the range on Grandpa’s ranch that I spent my summer vacations as a child. During my high school years, a group of us spent a Sunday scaling the mountain. I had borrowed a pair of hiking boots for the climb and they worked fine going up, but coming down was another matter. The boots were a bit short and walking down hill caused my toes to rub on the end of the shoe and develop blisters that became quite painful. Mountain climbing and sore toes were vivid in my memory, so I volunteered to stay down and run the base station, while all the others, less the Gattis, climbed the Kibo, the highest of the two peaks that make up the majestic mountain called Kilimanjaro.

The Plans for the Climb

Gatti and the “memsahib” were late diners; the cocktail hour was rather long, too. With a truckload of Canadian Club whiskey, numerous cases of gin and vermouth, plus a “chef” instead of a camp “cook,” the two veteran explorers did live it up in fine style. The worst part of it was that Hallicrafters had given them enough radios so they could monitor the goings on in the ham shack. I don’t think Mrs. Gatti did much of that, but the Commander certainly didn’t miss a word. In his stylish office/bedroom trailer, Gatti had the radio on constantly, and right next to the SX-43 was a pad of ruled five-to-the-inch graph paper with multiple sheets of carbon paper for quick copies. The graph paper became a familiar sight because every “field order” Commander Gatti issued was scribbled on the blue-inked graph paper. When something he didn’t like came to his attention, Gatti would quickly make a note and dispatch carbons to the persons who caused the problem. Some of Gatti’s penmanship was smudged on the carbon copies, which made them hard to interpret, but he always carefully printed the real cause of his ire in upper case type, for example: “IT IS MY STATION AND YOU WILL RUN IT EXACTLY AS I WISH.” Jim Powers made the following observation to me after we received a real red-hot smoking note from the commander, “When we don’t see a native bearing a handful of graph paper, things must be going okay.”

CHAPTER 10, Controller Gatti

Copyright 2003,William D. Snyder
All Rights reserved
Gatti in control !! Simple recording, said Gatti to Bill A late evening cocktail party ? Norman the barber, and Bill the customer  Waiting for dinner