John Herbert Orr: An extraordinary man

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By Norma Kirkpatrick
Opelika Observer

A boy who was going to grow up to become a most unusual man, was born in 1911 in Opelika. It was the same year William Howard Taft was elected President and Orville Wright stayed in the air for nine minutes and 45 seconds in a glider. Opelika had a population of about 4,750, and Lee County was home to 32,867 folks, according to the 1910 census. Opelika, a hub for cotton marketing and shipping, was the center of thriving activity, as cotton farmers brought their crops into town from outlying areas.
The boy was John Herbert Orr. When he was twelve years old, he chopped wood for six months; hauling it to Columbus in a wagon to earn the ninety dollars needed to buy parts to build a radio. That is purported to be the first known homemade radio in Alabama. People came to the Orr home just to listen to John’s cigar-box invention.
Fast forward to the 1940’s: the world had totally changed and John Orr was far away from home. U.S. Intelligence consistently monitored German broadcasts in England before the Normandy invasion and they made an eerie discovery.  Hitler’s voice would come on the radio frequently and at all hours; though it was impossible for Der Fuehrer to be available to broadcast at such sporadic intervals.  His speeches had to be prerecorded, but there was no sound of the background clutter that always existed on known recordings. It sounded exactly like a live broadcast.
Maj. Orr, chief engineer, SHAEF, Radio Division, may have been in Europe, but he was still doing what he loved to do. His inquisitive mind took special note as Intelligence began to get bits of information about a remarkable magnetic tape recorder the Germans had made and used since 1939. That would explain the high quality sound they had monitored.
As the allied invasion of Europe began, our forces tried their best to capture one of the German radio stations before it could be demolished.  The Germans raced ahead of them, destroying every station from Normandy to Paris.
Then, almost as if by design, the prize station on the continent, Radio Luxembourg, fell into Allied hands. Unbelievably, this powerhouse station that could beam propaganda to any point in Europe and Asia, was captured almost intact.  The Germans had scattered at least 20 tons of TNT under its transmitter and elaborate studios and touched off all the fuses before leaving. But they had overlooked two spies; one at the Luxembourg transmitter and the other at the studios who slipped around behind the German demolition squads, snapping off the fuses as fast as they were set.
Among the rare prizes the Americans found when they entered the flagship station were three of the mysterious German tape recorders, known as “Magnetophones.”
“We turned them on,” said Orr, “and out poured some of the most beautiful music you ever heard.  No scratchiness; no background noises; only perfect high-fidelity music. I guess that’s where the spark was struck in my mind. I immediately realized what magnetic tape could do for me; and for every broadcaster in the world.”  That moment would put John Herbert Orr on the path to becoming America’s, if not the world’s, leading authority on magnetic tape.
In 1945, John Orr was serving under Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in Europe (SCAPE), assigned as one of the U.S. Army Intelligence officials working with captured German engineers to study the technology developed in Germany during the 1930’s.  He was ordered to set up a tape manufacturing facility. He was to make not only the equipment to record voices, but also the magnetic tape itself. The technology was still evolving, with paper tape as the medium at that time.
Eisenhower wanted to record a message to the German people; which he did by using captured German tape. The tape had not been completely erased, and Hitler’s voice broke through intermittently along with that of Eisenhower. The General ordered that no more captured tape could be used.
So Orr’s special assignment was expanded with priority on finding out how to manufacture virgin tape. He had heard of Dr. Karl Pflaumer, who was the grandfather of German recording tape.  On impulse, he commissioned a car and drove to Ludwigshafen to the estate of the famed man. Pflaumer, himself, stepped outside to greet the visitor.
With great enthusiasm, John quickly explained his quest and asked Pflaumer if he could help. The old genius smiled at the lack of restraint from this interesting American.  “Well, yes,” he replied in perfect English.  “I think I can tell you how to make some tape pretty quickly.  Since you are in a hurry for it, I won’t tell you the best method now; but the simplest.”  He offered to write it down.
Orr was embarrassed to realize that, in his haste, he had left his notebook at home.  Paper was scarce.  Rummaging around in the car, he found a wrinkled, brown paper sack. Pflaumer put the sack on a car fender and scribbled down a formula in English. Two weeks after his assignment to manufacture “virgin tape”, Orr was doing it meticulously by hand since all German tape-making machines had been destroyed during the D-Day surge.
There was a sense of urgency in everything Orr was doing now, as his military service was about to end.  A few weeks before he was to return to the US, he was in a devastating jeep accident.  The driver was killed. Orr survived; but his back was broken in three places.  He stayed in Germany in a military hospital, struggling with a painful recovery for months, until he was well enough to be shipped home.
As he was being carried out of the hospital on a stretcher to be taken to an airplane, a familiar figure appeared beside him.  It was old Dr. Pflaumer.  When he heard Orr was leaving, he had hurriedly traveled 150 miles to see him. The attendants sat the litter down so the two men could talk. Dr. Pflaumer knelt down beside John as they said their goodbyes. As the attendants motioned that it was time to go, the old scientist took an envelope from his pocket.  “As a token of my esteem for you,” he said, as he laid the envelope on Orr’s chest; and they parted.
Inside the envelope Orr found the Pflaumer formula, along with his discoveries on how to make top-quality recording tape.  He explained that using a formulated binding coat on clear plastic, instead of paper, produced the best magnetic tape. Pflaumer added the only place in Europe where the plastic could be found was a factory that made ladies imitation leather purses.
(To be continued.)

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