THE PRESTO HISTORY PAGE (Updated July 2012)
Newly added are personal recollections from Robert and Joe Saliba, son's of founder George Saliba and can be found in the reference section, paragraphs 4 and 5 at the end of this narrative.
PRESTO Recording Corporation was a power-house company in the broadcast and recording industry, and most radio stations and networks that made use of disc recorders for delayed broadcast, or air checks, etc., were users of PRESTO EQUIPMENT. All of the major broadcast network headquarters, as well as many recording studios used PRESTO recorders.
This page will include a brief history, as much as we have to date, as we are still accumulating information. And we will compare the development of the basic PRESTO models over the years. The following pages have lots of pictures, so be patient during downloading.
The very early years are a little sketchy but the Presto Products Company was founded in 1915. They produced the Sonora phonograph and other equipment, and a 3 pound head for embossing on aluminum blanks, state of the art at that time, in 1931. They were out of business in 1932, and emerged later as the Duall Company in 1932, and became Presto Recording Corp. in 1933. The first advertisement for a Presto disc was Oct 15, 1934. (1)
In 1932 Gernsback Publications published a book "Home Recording And All About It", written by George Saliba. In the book are several references to recording "kits", as produced by the Presto Products Company, and sold to the home recordist and apparently introduced as early as 1930. 2 units are pictured below.
It is difficult to see, but the word "Presto" appears on the pickup head in the right most picture.
PRESTO RECORDING CORPORATION was organized in 1933 and incorporated in New York State in March of 1934 by Morris Gruber, George Saliba, Aaron Benjamin, and Mr. Sholes (Mr. Benjamin's son-in-law). Morris Gruber was 20 years senior to George Saliba. Mr. Sholes died shortly after, and Mr. Benjamin died in 1960 at the age of 91. Mr Benjamin was an attorney. Gruber and Saliba worked togetheron the technical design side. Mr Saliba was president of the company, and handled administrative as well as technical and sales. Morris Gruber died in1961, at age of 78. George Saliba was in his late twenties, graduating from M.I.T. in 1927 with a degree in electrical engineering. He passed away July 7, 1971 at the age of 66.
According to information from Morris Gruber's obituary, he had a storied past in radio electronics. Mr. Gruber developed a sound-on-film system for Dr. Lee De Forest's General Talking Picture Corporation. He also produced Rayfoto, facsimile equipment in 1926 that was used experimentally for the radio transmission of pictures of scientific expeditions to Greenland. During World War II he served as a consultant to the Times Facsimile Corporation. He came to the US in 1907 from Austria, where he had graduated from the University of Vienna.
After more than 3 years of research and development, PRESTO was founded on the development of the cellulose recording disc and associated disc recording equipment.
PRESTO's most important contribution to the world of Broadcasting and Recording was the lacquer coated instantaneous recording disc. PRESTO was one of three companies to have developed versions of this disc - the others were in France and England - and the PRESTO version was introduced to the US in the fall of 1934, after several years of experimentation. (1)
The disc consisted of an aluminum plate coated with a cellulose nitrate based lacquer (not "acetate"), and offered dramatic improvement over embossing uncoated aluminum and pre-grooved plastic discs formerly used for instantaneous recording. While those systems had been patented, cutting a groove in a soft material was now in the Public Domain. It was a common industrial practice to coat aluminum with various substances. Thus the US Patent Office deemed that making and cutting lacquer blanks was nothing new, and thus unpatenable. This resulted in several companies making similar blanks soon after PRESTO introduced their disc. (3)
The "PRESTO DISC" quickly became the industry standard, and by 1936 PRESTO recording equipment was being installed in stations nationwide. The PRESTO system was the foundation of NBC's Radio Recording Division, which began operation in the spring of 1935, and was also adopted by CBS when that network began its recording service in 1938. (1)
While there have been refinements over the decades, the basic coated lacquer disc remained the industry standard for instantaneous recording, and is used to this day in the preparation of master discs for analog phono records. The development of the coated disc is a vital accomplishment in the technology of recorded sound, and PRESTO got the credit. (1)
One of the earliest documented use of PRESTO recorders for delayed broadcast was of the Hindenburg disaster in May of 1937. Reporter Herb Morrision and engineer Charlie Nehlsen had been invited to record interviews of passengers embarking from the voyage. History tells of a different story. (1)
Some material provided me, indicates PRESTO made some special equipment, at about 1936, and probably for government and law enforcement agencies for recording telephone and other types of communication. The devices contained dual turntables and a mixer/amp with relays that would start the next turntable as the current one finished, for continuos recording. The operator had only to change blanks and reset the recording head. The equipment consisted of the J5 turntables adapted to run at 78, 33 1/3, and 12 ½ RPM, using 12" blanks. It was designated the EU-7R. It also incorporated automatic volume control circuits to maintain sending and receiving conversations at a near similar level. A similar unit was produced in 1940 and was designated the 3-D recorder. It operated at 78, 33 1/3, and 16 rpm.
PRESTO enjoyed a large success and was touted to be the world's largest manufacturers of Instantaneous sound recording equipment and discs. Presto was a privately held company, and in the early 50's ran into competition and labor problems. The partners, especially the older ones, were reluctant to take the risk of entering new areas. PRESTO was sold July 2, 1956 to Unitronics Corporation of Long Island City,NY.Six months earlier Unitronics had purchased the David Bogen Co.PRESTO was merged with the David Bogen Co., and became the Bogen-Presto division. Unitronics was the successor to Olympic Radio and Television,which also became a division of Unitronics. In September 1957 Unitronics merged with the Siegler Corp., then Siegler merged with Lear, Inc., becoming Lear-Siegler in 1962. During this time Bogen-Presto was listed as a subsidiary. In 1963 the Presto name was dropped, and Bogen shown as a subsidiary. The Moody's Industrial listed Bogen as still having disc and tape recorders along with their other hi-fi home and industrial electronics. The 1965 listing for Bogen drops the recording equipment in their product mix. Thus the "end" of PRESTO!
To quote from the sale announcement: ( in the July 1956 issue of the "Presto Recorder", a monthly newsletter published by PRESTO) "David Bogen Co. will transfer its offices and part of its manufacturing activities to Presto's new 80,000 square foot plant in Paramus. It is intended that Presto and Bogen work closely together since so many of their products are complementary. However, Presto and Bogen will retain separate identities,and each will adapt its sales policies to the fields it services. George J Saliba will continue to direct the operations of the Presto Recording Division as Vice President and General Manager". The blank disk division was sold to Reeves/Soundcraft in the late 50's or early 60's.
Perhaps a drawback to their continued success was in the basic design of their recorders. Such was the overhead mechanism of their larger machines, it did not allow for the larger stereo heads to be mounted. Although PRESTO (Bogen-Presto) did offer a stereo head licensed by Westrex that would mount on the 8D, 8DG, and 8GV lathes, it was late in their life. Scully and others developed a superior lathe, more adaptable to the automatic functions necessary for finer stereo mastering.
Presto was first located at 139 W 19th Street in New York City, where it had its offices up through the end of the War. Presto started on 19th street, and later also occupied 3 stories on 55th street off Broadway. In 1940 it moved part of its operation to Paramus, NJ, and in 1948 built a new building behind the older one at Rt 4 and Forrest Avenue. The Presto factory became a large furniture warehouse, and a newer building behind held the Bogen enterprise. Both buildings are now gone, and the site is occupied by the Bergen Mall
The smaller building to the left was occupied in 1940, and was the disc plant. .
The larger building was completed in 1948 and contained the rest of the operation.
The Disc plant, front view.
During the world war II years, Presto was heavily involved with government and military production. Through George Saliba's contacts with MIT, Presto was able to secure contracts for building such equipment as Location/Range finding equipment installed in NY harbor to detect submarines;test equipment for Radar installations/ Long Range Navigation for overseas lend/lease; as well as developing navigation simulation equipment for the Marines training for the Invasion of Japan (2). For these services, Presto was awarded the prestigious Army-Navy "E" award for it's help in the war effort.
After the war, Presto, who had relied heavily on their disc recording equipment, needed to expand for the future. Some one involved with the Nuemberg Trials at wars end, friends with the Principles at Presto, sent 2 German tape recorders used at the trials to Presto. They were military models, brand unknown, but must have been Magnetophone recorders. They were very ruggedly built, and were of the three motor design (2). That action resulted in Presto entering the tape recorder field.
Since Bing Crosby Enterprises had invested money in Ampex,developing the tape recorder at about the same time, Presto was in a catch up mode, and never reached the success of Ampex in acceptance. Many broadcast stations who had their disc equipment, purchased their tape recorders. Presto stayed with the 3 motor design, and never entered the home consumer market.
Arthur Gruber, son of Morris, worked for a time for Presto designing the tape transport systems of their later models. Shortly after the company was sold, he and several other engineers were employed by Scully and re-designed the Scully tape recorders, which were very advanced in their field at that time. Arthur was chief engineer and vice president of Scully Recording Corp from 1961 to 1968. Arthur died November 27,2001.
Presto also was help to CBS Labs in the development of the Long Play 33 1/3 microgroove record (2).
An interesting sidebar in the "Presto Recorder" of Oct, 1950: "Used aluminum base discs are worth money to you. Presto will pay 15 cents each for 16" and 10 cents each for 12" discs. Broadcast stations and recording studios should send their used discs in any amount of 100 pounds or over via Railway or Motor Freight collect." Then, in another side bar in the May 1951 issue this appeared: "It's no secret that aluminum is scarce, except for essential defense requirements, And, as you know, aluminum is the most widely used base in the manufacture of recording discs. No other metal has proven satisfactory for this purpose. The nearest substitute for aluminum is glass. With the exception of its fragility, glass possesses all the mechanical qualities of aluminum and will produce an extremely satisfactory disc. This all leads up to the already obvious fact that Presto will henceforth deliver glass discs only, until such time as restrictions on aluminum are lifted. Prices will remain the same, as will the type numbers used to designate the discs, except the word "glass" will be added. The glass disc will have a steel insert at the center. A paper label applied to each side will bind this insert to the disc and provide maximum strength at this vital point........." This tends to explain, in addition to scrap drives during world war II, where all the old transcriptions went.
As can be seen by the progress of the development of PRESTO equipment by pictures and pages from catalogs, the basic design did not change that much over the years. In the following pages I show similar models and approximate dates. Note the similarity, especially in the construction of the overhead mechanism from the early "stationary recorder", through the dual turntable models A and B, the 28N and the 8N lathes. Also, the 6D, and 6N also have great similarity. The PRESTO "JR", shown in 1937, progressed to the K10 of the 60's, and the basic appearance is the same. The amplifier of the model remained virtually the same, with a pair of 45 tubes as the output drivers.
PRESTO also manufactured several superior recording amplifiers, along with playback turntables, mixers and other broadcast equipment. The 90A amplifier/mixer, introduced in 1947 , was perhaps the first commercially manufactured recording mixer.
As an ongoing effort, I will add to this history as I gain information. Many of these pictures are from old catalogs, and some are from photocopies. Thus some are not to clear. Any in color are from my collection. Where prices were indicated, I have included those.
Thanks for visiting, and if you have any information you can contribute, it will be appreciated.
You can reach me via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. Alan C Graves. 5365 Cobblestone Lane, Eugene, Oregon 97402.
My special thanks to Robert G Saliba, son of George Saliba, for information he has supplied to me. My Thanks also to Eric Morritt for supplying images and additional information. This page updated July,2012
(1) From articles by Dr Michael Biel contained in "AM Broadcasting History - Various Articles" http://members.aol.com/jeff570/am8.html.
(2) From information provided by Alfred (Fred) Jorysz, the "last surviving" engineer for Presto. Mr. Jorysz was employed for 18 years by Presto (1936 to 1954) and had degrees in Applied Physics and Communications. He was a development engineer for Presto, and a member of AES. He authored many articles for the company newsletter/magazine "THE PRESTO RECORDER".
Mr Jorysz left Presto at about the time Presto was sold. He was then employed by Otis Elivator (for 28 years) and designed and installed the elevators in the World Trade Center, as well as others. Mr Jorysz passed away March 8, 2003.
(3) My thanks again to Dr Biel for some changes and date correctons.
(4) Recollections of Presto Recording and an amazing and wonderful father. By Joe Saliba. Dad was born in 1905 near Lawrence MA, where he spent his early years. He was the son of Lebanese immigrants. At that time the city of Lawrence was comprised of various immigrant groups such as Italian, Irish, Lebanese, etc; almost all of whom worked in the mills on the banks of the Merrimac River. It was a place from which you strived to escape.
George was the oldest of five and was able to go to college. He began at Northeastern University in Boston with the intent of studying civil engineering, but he saw greater potential in electrical engineering and transferred to MIT where he finished in 1927.
Electrical engineering in those days was concerned with rotating devices such as generators and motors, and vacuum tubes were very much in their infancy. Dad, however, pursued vacuum tube theory and electronics as best he could, and even in those early days he was intrigued with the idea of sound recording. His first job out of college was to wire the Dupont golf course in Wilmington so that music could be played over a public address system.
During the 1929 depression he was recalled to Lawrence by his father to help in the family construction business which consisted of building triple decker homes on Boston's North Shore. He was able to escape a year or two later and returned to New York where he married my mother in 1931 and began his exploits at Presto Recording. He found three financial partners who would back him, and after a short period, the business found a home at 242 West 55th Street.
Dad was intrigued with the idea of instantaneous recording and set about with M.M. Gruber (a partner and mechanical engineer) to design early disc recording and playback equipment. They found a ready market in radio stations and record companies such as Decca, RCA, etc., and they met with good success.
My brother (Robert) has several of those early recordings with prototype equipment and they are quite something to hear. The vocal artist was often our mother, and we treasure those early recordings.
World War II presented a unique opportunity for dad to capitalize on the electronics skills of Presto, and he contacted an old friend, Jerry Wiesner, who at that time was heading MIT's Research Laboratory for Electronics. Jerry and his people were developing radar, loran, and sonar systems and dad, with Jerry's help, was able to win several manufacturing contracts. Jerry would later become president of MIT. As an entering freshman in 1951, I visited Mr. Wiesner, and we talked at length about Presto and the use of radar during the war.
The opportunity was wonderful, and we still have letters of commendation from ship captains who used Presto equipment with great success in the south Pacific. Imagine shelling and destroying a Japanese ship in total darkness, particularly since the manufacturer of the radar was only in his late 30's.
Peace time brought several challenges. The government contracts evaporated, and the sound recording business moved in several directions. First, came the 45 rpm record, then the 33, and then several new recording technologies. The Germans had perfected magnetic wire recording during the war, but even though the fidelity was good, the technology was quickly discarded because of the difficulties of splicing a broken wire.. More importantly, Ampex introduced magnetic tape recording which had phenomenal fidelity and signal to noise ratios. Lastly, the introductions of the transistor put vacuum tube amplifies into the museum.
I vividly remember going with dad to the plant on Sunday nights to record on prototype tape equipment Paul Laval's (sp?) Band of America which broadcast live on New York's only FM station with breathtaking clarity. Dad tried to use these recordings to persuade his partners to invest in this new technology but they were not inclined to do so.
In short, there were many very significant challenges facing Presto at this time, and dad's partners, who were significantly older and less inclined to take risk, were reluctant to move ahead into new areas. So, in the mid-fifties, Presto was sold, and the partners went their separate ways.
Imagine if the Presto people could see an iPod..!!!.
(5) Personal recollections of Robert Saliba. I have a Presto Model K recording machine, which has not been used since 1948. The other day I got it out and opened it. It is a relic of the past - the pre-digital/pre-plastic age. Solid metal, vacuum tubes. It weighs a ton. I am in the process of having it restored.
I remember this machine in use in 1944 at our old house in Englewood, New Jersey. When Dad wanted to record, he brought it out and it sat in the middle of the living room, which had a huge old Philco radio, a phonograph that played only 78's, and a 1940 television set with a tube so large it had to point upward with the picture reflected from a mirror. NBC made about 50 of them that year. The one we had was a gift from David Sarnoff to Dad.
It was an era when the kitchen had an ice box (not a refrigerator) the basement had a coal furnace, and there was one car - a 1941 Pontiac coupe with a solid heavy metal frame. I have a disc recording my fifth birthday in 1945 and other discs going back to 1937. I also have a disc with me singing the theme song from the old Howdy Doody Show, that was made in 1948 at our new house in Englewood, and I think that's the last time the recorder was used.
My father, George Saliba, was born in Methuen Massachusetts in 1905 and grew up in nearby Lawrence, about 30 miles south of Boston. He graduated in 1922 from Lawrence High School, spent one year at Northeastern University and then transferred to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he got his electrical engineering degree in 1927. He then went to New York City, where he got a job with Western Electric.
Dad always had an interest in electronics. He used to tell me about when he was a teenager he liked to fool around with a crystal radio set.
I am not sure how he got into home recording, but he told me he met Morris Gruber at a trade show in New York. The two of them formed a partnership. Dad was almost thirty years old, Mr Gruber was in his early fifties. They found a financier in Aaron Benjamin, a New York attorney, who was then in his mid-sixties. This was a very harmonious partnership, lasting from the founding of the Presto Recording Corporation in New York in the early1930's until it's sale in 1956.
During World War Two Presto produced radar equipment for the Navy. In August of 1945 Presto received the prestigious Army-Navy E award (E for excellence) at a large reception at the old Hotel Astor in Times Square. I was too young to go but my brother (Joe), six years older and age eleven did.
After the War the company moved to Paramus, NJ and continued to manufacture recording machines and discs. It expanded its products to include tape recorders.
In the early fifties, the company ran into resistance with competition, it was beset by labor problems, and in 1956 it was sold.
Around 1974 I developed an interest in the music of New Orleans jazz musician Jelly Roll Morton (1886-1941), and I think I have collected almost all his recordings on LP.
In 1938, toward the end of his career, after his contract with Victor had expired and he was down and out, Morton sat down at an old upright piano in the Library of Congress with folklorist Alan Lomax and recorded several hours of oral history and music, all of which were recorded on a Presto with batteries for field use. It wasn't until years later that I discovered these recordings were made on a Presto.
Jerome Wiesner joined the Library of Congress in the early 1940's. He traveled around the American South with Alan Lomax and helped him record musicians.
When Dad died in 1971, Jerry Wiesner sent my brother Joe a condolence note stating that he remembered the old days in Washington with Dad and him and Alan Lomax. Jerry Wiesner later became President of MIT. I met him with Dad in 1955 when we went to Cambridge for my brother's graduation. He was a professor there at the time.
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Thanks again for visiting, and if you have any information you can contribute, it will be appreciated.
Alan C Graves. 5365 Cobblestone Lane, Eugene, Oregon 97402. 458-201-8812 email@example.com