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John Mullin; U.S. Pioneer in Tape-Recording Technology

TIMES STAFF WRITER

John T. “Jack” Mullin, largely responsible for adapting Germany’s magnetic tape-recording technology for American use and with that boosting Bing Crosby’s flagging radio ratings after World War II, has died. He was 85.

Mullin died June 24 of heart failure at his Camarillo home, according to Peter Hammar, recording industry historian and founder of the Museum of Magnetic Recording in Redwood City, Calif.

An electrical engineer, Mullin studied Germany’s high-fidelity audio magnetic tape-recording systems during World War II when he was stationed in England. Although he was assigned to improving Allied radar systems, Mullin was a classical music buff and spent off-duty hours listening to German broadcasts of the Berlin Philharmonic.

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He became convinced that the Germans had a sound recorder far superior to the transcription discs then used in America. Mullin later got the chance to examine captured German electronic equipment in France and, after Germany’s defeat in 1945, in Frankfurt. There he saw a demonstration of a high-fidelity version of Germany’s AEG Magnetophon audiotape recorder used on German radio since 1941.

When he left the Army as a major in 1946, Mullin got official permission to take two of the recorders and blank tape back to San Francisco. With his partner, San Francisco filmmaker W.A. Palmer, he refined his two German machines and demonstrated them to other engineers May 16, 1946.

“There were many people on both coasts and in the middle who were important in making [audiotaping] happen,” said Hammar. “But Mullin was the essential catalyst.”

The historian said Mullin’s work advanced the use of the German technology in the United States by a decade.

Mullin’s adaptation came at a fortuitous time for Crosby, who had tired of performing live on radio but was losing ratings because of the poor sound quality of his recorded network broadcasts. Murdo MacKenzie, Crosby’s technical producer, heard about the Mullin machines and arranged a demonstration.

Mullin was hired as Crosby’s chief engineer, and in 1947 began recording “Philco Radio Time” on tape. Listeners thought Crosby was again singing live, and ratings shot up. The dramatic turnaround convinced other radio and recording artists, among them Burl Ives and Les Paul, to switch to the new sound system.

Working with scissors and tape, Mullin also learned how to splice laugh and applause tracks into the recorded performances--a discovery he came to rue.

“The thing that horrified Jack the most,” Hammar said, was that he would be remembered for contributing phony laughter to the airwaves.

In 1949, Mullin helped develop magnetic taping of data and instrumentation when he adapted audio recorders for use at Point Mugu Naval Air Station and Edwards Air Force Base. Two years later, the engineer headed the Bing Crosby Enterprises team that built the world’s first working videotape recorder.

When Crosby sold his electronics lab to 3M in 1956, Mullin became chief engineer of the new 3M Mincom electronics division in Camarillo.

After his retirement in 1975, Mullin hosted classical music programs and volunteered his engineering skills to public radio stations.

He was a native of San Francisco and earned his degree in electrical engineering from Santa Clara University.

Survivors include two sons, John of Los Osos, Calif., and Peter of Huntington Beach, and a daughter, Eve Collier, of Camarillo.

The family has asked that memorial donations be sent to Catholic Charities, 1531 W. 9th St. in Los Angeles or to Santa Clara University, 500 El Camino Real, Santa Clara, CA 95053.


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