May 1956 Popular Electronics
Table of Contents
People old and young enjoy waxing nostalgic about and learning some of the history
of early electronics. Popular Electronics was published from October 1954 through April 1985. All copyrights
are hereby acknowledged. See all articles from
This 1956-vintage article by techno-kidder Carl
Kohler taught me a new word - 'darb,' as in "Isn't that a darb, now." According to Merriam-Webster, a darb is a
slang term for something superlative. Mr. Kohler penned many tongue-in-cheek stories for Popular
Electronics in the 1950s and 1960s, all of them based on his antics involving the latest electronics
gadget and Mrs. Kohler's reaction to them. Maybe they are real (in this case, 'reel') and maybe
not, but regardless, they are funny and even if made up, could easily be actual experiences. A list
of the other Kohler sagas is given below.
See Carl Kohler's "The Great Electron-Pedantic Project," "Dig That Reel
Flat Response," "I Married a Superheterodyne,"
"Unpopular Electronics," "Operation Chaos," "Thin Air, My Foot," "High Tide in the Tweeter," "The R/C Cloud," "Hi-Fi Guest List," "Kool-Keeping Kwiz ," "Boner Box," and "McWatts."
Reel Flat Response!
By Carl Kohler
It had to happen sometime.
As an ex-musician, whose union withdrawal-card has gathered
dust in the company of a tarnished cornet, I've long entertained the certainty that sooner or later
I would saunter into my electronics jobber's store for a handful of transistors - and emerge lugging
a late model tape recorder.
It finally happened a couple of weeks ago. So I wasn't a mite surprised at all when friend wife caught
me crooning fondly over a professional magnetic tape recorder. In fact, I was prepared to be caught.
Friend wife batted her inscrutable brown eyes and stood as motionless as a Mohawk war lord while
I fiddled with the push-button keyboard and nervously threaded tape into the instrument.
"We already have a movie projector," she said, finally, in the disillusioned voice of a long-suffering
woman whose hubby has just brought home their fourth pool table. "We need another projector like we
need another circuit around this humming warren of wire. If you're going to fling the long-green in
all directions, why can't you, at least, throw it away on something we haven't yet blown fuses on?"
I dredged up an insincere chuckle.
"Now, relax. If you'll just tune down the verbal impedance and favor this fine instrument with a-"
"Relax, he says." She smiled a thin smile of self-pity, and snatching up one of the reels from the
coffee table, held a foot of tape against the light - her film-editing squint working overtime. "Gruss
Gott!" she yelped, "No pictures on the film even! The boy buys a big, fat, expensive projector and plans
to run unexposed, undeveloped film through it yet!"
"This . . . is . . . a . . . tape recorder," I said in cleanly geometric English. "Stop acting like
a ward matron in a funny house and give a listen." I turned the recorder to 'on,' jabbed the playback
key, and the soothing, full-toned chords of the overture from La Boheme swelled into the room - courtesy
Wilhelm Furtwangler, the Vienna Philharmonic, and electronic-hi-fi enchantment.
"Isn't that a darb now!" I whispered, under the dramatic sweep of the orchestration.
She dropped beside me, watching the 1200-foot reel of tape slowly rotating to the accompanying surge
"Phonograph music on a strip of paper!
My gosh, isn't that the craziest ever!"
"Plastic, magnetized tape," I corrected. "B-But we already have a phono-"
I hoisted an interrupting hand.
"Lady, you haven't heard anything! You are about to ear-witness one of the magics of the electronic
age!" I switched reels, putting a blank one into the recorder. Thrusting the wide-range, cardioid microphone
in front of her awe-stricken face, I flicked the "record" button and bent a companionable leer upon
her. "Say something," I invited.
"W-What'll I say?"
"Oh, give with a profound thought, a crisply new idea, a cleanly enunciated series of well-chosen
words worthy of the occasion."
"I-I feel kinda silly!" she shrilled, gaping coyly at the mike. "Uh ... hello, there! (titter) Gee,
does this thing really ... I mean ... oh, I don't know what to say! It seems so foolish! (titter)."
"Thank you, Miss Verbal Fumble of 1956," I said, and stopped
the tape. Reversing the reel and watching the counter-dial, I played it back after I was able to start
it from the approximate beginning. Together, we sat listening.
"... Miss Verbal Fumble of 1956," finished the tape playback. I stopped the tape, snapped off the
"Oh, that's simply marvelous!" she cooed. "It's fraught with possibilities," I admitted. "Armed with
this rare instrument, one might enjoy all manner of merry fun and elaborate mischief. Surely, you'll
agree that, heretofore, we've led rather dull lives; and purchasing this quality precision instru-"
Friend wife transfixed me with the pitiless stare of the natural-born, dyed-in-the-balance-sheets
bookkeeper. "Before you wax sickeningly poetic about it, boy, let's hear what this little sound-caper
does to the budget. Come on, all bush-beating aside: what's the damage?"
"Might as well hang for a horse-thief as be heel-twitching high for candy snatching," I quipped,
my effort at light, gay-hearted whimsey momentarily putting me in the Noel Coward league ... for valorous
attempt, if not notably successful comedy. "As dear, old penny-pinching dad used to put it," I continued,
somewhat desperately stalling for time and a good out, "quaality is -" here, I slathered a phoney, nasal
Down East twang into my golden, South Los Angeles native dialect, and did my absolute darndest to grin
engagingly with a bucolic twist of lip, "- as quaality costs, heh, heh, heh!"
"What's the cost, heh, heh, heh?"
I told her.
"Great Galloping Bankruptcy!" she screeched, her attention riveted upon the recorder with much the
same awe the Conquistadores must have regarded golden Inca altars. "Here comes macaroni three times
"I'll eat like a bird," I vowed solemnly. "What do they build into these gismos to make them small
invested-fortunes - pure platinum mainsprings or something?" Quickly and deftly, she swept a fly off
the polished surface of the instrument before his feet could bruise the gleaming finish.
"Well, this model has four separate heads," I stated, importantly. "And those four heads -"
"... together with your two make six," she chimed. "And what's that got to do with the high price
of pretty music, hah?"
Ignoring her cruel thrust, I continued to list the definite advantages of a really professional tape
"Well, when you reach the end of a track, there's no need to fuss with changing reels. With an erase
head and a record-playback head for each track - you merely touch the conveniently built button and,
presto, the tape reverses its motion recording. Or it plays back the second track without further fiddling
"Bully for old four-heads, here!" She drew the drapes to protect the gleaming instrument from the
harsh effects of smog-filtered sunlight. "Don't quit when you're winning. What else does this sing-box
have that I can shout praises about to the other old folks when we get to the poorhouse, Buster?"
That did it.
"Not that it'll mean any more to you than International Morse means to a pack of symbol-deaf aliens
from another galaxy, but I could mention that this baby has a hysteresis motor independent of line voltage
fluctuations, electromagnetic dynamic braking, two high-impedance and one low-impedance input ... and
the whole works is relay-operated and triple-fused against improper operation, which it'll only get
over my stone-cold dead body." I paused to change the air in my lungs and glare intensely.
Abashed, humbled and probably wondering what I was talking about (but not certain it hadn't been
something vastly, terribly important beyond her frail grasp upon things electronic), she sat contritely
in my lap and gazed at the recorder with much the same expression as I imagine the aborigines must have
had when they spotted their first aircraft. Then, she turned the wonderment on me.
"I guess you know just about everything there is to know about these things, huh?"
I tried not to bridle proudly. "Oh, I wouldn't say that exactly," I hedged. "But, with pliers and
soldering iron and a faithful copy of Popular Electronics, I think I can promise to keep things
A lot of gibberish and an equal amount of good stuff has passed through the recording heads since
then. We've found many, many uses - both entertaining and sheerly functional - for the tape recorder,
and have learned much. I've used it to record lectures, concerts and meetings at my R/C club. Friend
wife, after getting the hang of it, has used the instrument for recording various club meetings, club
entertainments, and to begin cataloging some of her favorite social and family clambakes into a very
fascinating (if somewhat occasionally discomforting) library of human interest and events. To date,
the growing library contains gems like The Afternoon Mother Arrived from Michigan; The
Night Carl Dominated the Party Thrown for Chuck Bradley's Fortieth Birthday; Disconnected Conversation
with the New Neighbors; and a weird little thing comprised of ungodly sounds entitled simply,
Noises Recorded in the Backyard at Night.
As a night-worker who is not at his best until he's taken aboard several gallons of coffee around
eleven in the morning, I feel justified in my present plan to secretly destroy her favorite - a snide
bit of unfair recording called What a Husband Sounds Like at Seven-Thirty When Unexpectedly Awakened.
My groggy responses generally indicate a cretin badly in need of either rest or strong stimulant, and
I'm tired of listening to callous friends snicker at the playback performances. However, I have a surprise
which I plan to unload one of these nights. It's titled: One-Sided Comments from A Wife Who Thinks
Her Husband Is Still Listening to Her. A real wowser calculated to put her in her place!
Posted April 24, 2017