Looking for Diana Pine

Helen Hughes, University of Surrey

17 December 2019

For the past two years I have been working on a project about documentary and nuclear energy. My intention in looking at nuclear energy films has been to uannderstand how radioactivity is represented in contemporary non-fiction media, particularly in the context of environmental concern.

In order to widen the scope of my study of contemporary films to include the history of non-fiction filmmaking about nuclear energy I applied for a British Academy grant and happily received some funding to study a large number of films held in the British National Film and Television Archive. I have become a regular visitor to the viewing rooms in the basement of the BFI building in Stephen Street, helped out by Kathleen Dickson, and also by Steve Tollervey who has taught me how to thread a 16 mm and a 35 mm film on a Steenbeck (and reminded me of the details from time to time). I have also watched films on VHS and some on DVD.

How to remember how to thread a film on a Steenbeck. (Photograph by Helen Hughes)

The films I have been watching are a wide variety of non-fiction genres. There are instructional films such as Beta Gamma (1950) about how to work with radioactive materials without touching them or even looking at them. There is a surprising number of films such as Hinkley Point Part 1 (1960) that document the building of the first generation of nuclear power stations, including an observational film Nuclear Cathedral (1967) recorded in Wales that follows a variety of characters from a welder to the project manager. It has been quite absorbing to follow the developing public opinions about nuclear energy through the earnest television studio debates of the 1970s and 80s and then represented on increasingly ironic “hard hitting” chat shows in the 1990s right up to the present focus on decommissioning and the search for a location for a high level nuclear waste repository.

Along the way I have been reflecting on the process which seems as though I am composing an extremely long documentary for myself in the form of research viewing. At a certain point there is a shift and the earlier films are historicized in new programmes and incorporated into arguments about what happened and why, and it is fun to spot what archival material comes from where. The subject of radioactivity runs as a thread through it all with explanations about what it is varying in detail, in scope, and in tone.

I have put together a table which shows a relationship between the changing forms of non-fiction and the coverage of nuclear energy. The two are linked by parallel shifts in the relationship between people and authority, and participants and the camera. The most kindly example of this is a film called simply Nuclear Issues (1986) by the Edinburgh Film Workshop Trust in which Jim Hall, an organic farmer, says: ‘I would hate to think that any government would be so unfeeling that they would not like to take into consideration the wishes of the local people.’

There are of course many stories within my larger story which merit more attention than my survey will give. I have gathered that historians tend to collect more information than they can ever process in their own lifetimes. The question concerns which stories to pursue and in this the archive itself is the major player along with the people who have formed it in the past as they thought about posterity.

A central text for the history of British atomic energy is the official history Independence and Deterrence: Britain and Atomic Energy 1945-1952 (1974) published in two volumes by the first historian of science Margaret Gowing assisted by Lorna Arnold. It is really because of her work that archival documents about the beginning of the nuclear project in Britain have survived along with the films. Gowing wrote at length about Prime Minister Clement Attlee’s desire to keep the atomic project out of the public gaze and mentioned the difficulties the Central Office of Information had in gaining permission to issue any kind of information to journalists. She mentioned that the Crown Film Unit made a film about the Atomic Energy Research Establishment and its work in Harwell, Springfields and Windscale, which was not released.

A collection of books. (Photograph by Helen Hughes)

Margaret Gowing’s book led me to the National Archives in Kew where I began to look for files about the films I was watching. Putting together the films with the files in the National Archives I came to understand that Gowing was referring to the work of a filmmaker called Diana Pine who started out as a researcher and then took over as a director to organise the filming of the beginnings of the civil atomic project ‘for posterity.’ The process of understanding the context of the documents in a large file of letters, memos and production materials, selected and preserved by Gowing herself, became my introduction to the beginnings of British atomic history. After many trips to the National Archives, and endless amounts of reading, looking at newspapers, and film watching, I set out the chronology of the story in a research report for Screen called ‘The Story of Atoms at Work’. This is the first time I have tried to set out what happened in the making of a film rather than analysing what was meant.

TNA AB 8/215 ‘Scientific film production’ file cover. (Photograph by Helen Hughes)

Shot list for proposed film Springfields Factory. (Photograph by Helen Hughes)

It is sometimes said that the scholarship on British Documentary focuses too much on the war period and on the work of a few producer/directors such as John Grierson and Humphrey Jennings. I don’t think that this is surprising. World War II is well understood as a period and it is not difficult to understand the information the films provide even today. The period that followed is less well defined and even public facing films such as Atoms at Work take some investigation to see what they are. Diary for Timothy, a film made at the end of the war, is accessible to everyone as it is clearly about hoping for a better life which everyone can understand.

Nevertheless both of these films reward investigation, and the process of connecting them with the historical contexts in which they were made is positively addictive. It has led me from Stephen Street to the special file on Humphrey Jennings at the BFI Reuben library, to two taped interviews with Diana Pine, to a documentary by Robert Vos, to the Royal Institute of Science, and even up to Wick in Scotland, to see the new archive named Nucleus, dedicated to holding records about the British civil nuclear industry.

Nucleus: The Nuclear and Caithness Archives. (Photograph by Helen Hughes)

The comparison between Diary for Timothy and Atoms at Work has revived for me that old vexing question about authorship. Diary for Timothy is a Crown Film Unit production made by a team including Diana Pine who worked on it as a Unit Manager. It is known as Humphrey Jennings’ Diary for Timothy as he directed it, while it was produced by Basil Wright. Atoms at Work was directed by Diana Pine and produced by Stuart Legg, but as Stuart Legg wrote the treatment and the commentary I discussed the structure of the film in relation to his practice which has been described by Timothy Boon as dialectical. In the process I realized I have no sense of what Diana Pine’s authorship might involve even though it is clear from her letters that she had a clear idea of the shots she wished to compose.

One of the things that is very noticeable in tracing the theme of radioactivity over a long period is that with a few exceptions documentary films of the 1950s generally hide the makers more than they reveal them. Noticing the conference at the LSE on British Women Documentary Filmmakers was a spur to think further about the motivations of a film worker like Diana Pine. By a strange process of archival and internet serendipity I have now communicated with one of her nieces and have been thinking about how the personal and archival information we are piecing together can be related to the films and indeed to my project more generally.

What has come out of this new archival venture for me has been a greater awareness of the audio-visual archive as a resource to project a kind of social correlate of technological development. The story of Diana Pine that I looked for in relation to work on Atoms of Work is a way of thinking about the list of credits as a form of evidence in its own right. Contemporary independent documentary has brought the life of the filmmaker, particularly the director, more explicitly into the film but this is not to say that the lives of filmmakers were previously separate from their filmmaking. Rather it clarifies and perhaps choreographs the connections that are there already.

Perhaps it is characteristic of wartime that life and filmmaking become particularly interlinked. The life of Diana Pine, Unit Production Manager, turns out to be linked very closely to her work. The electoral register is a way to find out where people lived at different points in their lives. Like birth, death, marriage and probate, in pre-war Britain it also provides information about occupation. In 1939 she listed herself as Gubbins Diana P, (Pine, Diana professionally), and gave her employment as “Assistant Art Director in Films (unemployed)”. In 1940 her brother joined the RAF and in January 1941 her parents and sister were in occupied Jersey. Her brother was killed in March that year in one of the campaigns in East Africa. The films that Pine worked on as unit manager thus have a personal significance, particularly The Channel Islands 1940 – 1945 (1945).

Two other films make a family link that is a little more distant but which paints a broader picture of the different people who became involved with documentary filmmaking in Britain during the war. The Silent Village (1943) and Two Fathers (1944) were the first two films Pine worked on having at this point changed her occupation from unemployed art director in films to assistant director and film unit production manager. The films both present stories involving the subversive resistance work of the Special Operations Executive in occupied countries.

My first clue towards an understanding of who Pine was and how it connected to her filmmaking career turned up through her Gubbins family connections which trace a journey through British colonial history from her great great grandfather Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Gubbins’s New Brunswick Journals written in Canada in the early nineteenth century to her great grandfather Martin Richard Gubbins, financial commissioner in Oudh and author of An Account of the Mutinies in Oudh (1858), to her grandfather Charles Edgworth Gubbins of the 3rd Hydrabad Cavalry, and her father who managed to have a peacetime occupation in being a Barrister at Law but even so had fought in World War I. A cousin (once removed) was General Colin McVean Gubbins of the SOE.

The shift that Pine makes from unemployed art director to documentary takes her closer to the traditional male world of colonial administration, war, aviation, and technology from which she is descended. In the immediate post war years it is also a secret world made increasingly public as military technologies are adapted to peacetime. Her film credits for the Crown Film Unit—Dollars and Sense (1949, about the devaluation of the pound), Faster than Sound (1949, about the secret development of a missile during the war), Spotlight on the Colonies (1950, about the British approach to independence), Into the Blue (1950, about the development of civil aviation), The Magic Touch (1950, about the adaptation of materials to new purposes), and Atoms at Work (1952, about the productivity of radioactive isotopes)—represent an unusual female incursion which she sustained for only a short period once the Crown Film Unit was closed.

Non-fiction films in wartime and post war Britain film sponsored by the Ministry of Supply do not generally provoke the search for an author unless there is a particularly striking creative voice such as that of Humphrey Jennings. However, the status of Atoms at Work as the first film released by the government about its enormously expensive and risky atomic research programme, for me provoked curiosity about the secret conditions of production and the people who had been vetted and had signed the Official Secrets Act to be there with the cameras observing and recording it.

Coming back to Stephen Street and the list of films that represent the history of nuclear energy in moving images, the representation of radioactivity in Atoms at Work, with its references to alchemy and its question about good and evil, has turned out to be characteristic for representations right up to today. The most recent film I have watched in the archive was the BBC’s Inside Sellafield (2015) in which my colleague Jim Al-Khalili gives his view that there is a future for nuclear energy. For contemporary films I have largely moved from the celluloid, video and DVD archive to online sources such as the BUFVCs Box of Broadcasts. The dialectic between military and civilian uses has become one part of the debate around what is increasingly seen as an ongoing global mass experiment with nuclear fission. For me, the detour around the story of Diana Pine, as well as the aging character of media forms, makes the war generation situated at the beginning of the experiment more palpable and more connected to us as we work through the physical and psychological consequences now. Down in the basement and emerging online the archive of non-fiction films is both an outcome and an ongoing resource for many more projects like mine.

Christmas card by Diana Pine 1999. (Courtesy of Esther O’Callaghan)

Helen Hughes is a senior lecturer in film studies at the University of Surrey. She has published a number of articles and chapters on German and Austrian cinema. She is also the author of a book Green Documentary (2014) about contemporary environmental non-fiction film. She is currently working on a new book Radioactive Documentary about non-fiction feature films made on the subject of nuclear energy since the end of the Cold War.

Disclaimer: The IAMHIST Blog is a platform that offers individual scholars the opportunity to present their work and thoughts. They alone are responsible for the content, which does not represent the view of the IAMHIST council or other IAMHIST members.

A day at the archives… Centre Audiovisuel Simone de Beauvoir

Ylenia Olibet, Concordia University, Montreal, Canada

15 November 2019

Sitting in one of the biggest writing rooms of Concordia University’s library in Montreal, where I spend most of my days doing research as a doctoral student — a Proustian trick of memory takes me back to the two months I spent in Paris this past spring. In a state of scholarly reverie, I think back, reflecting and re-elaborating on the archival research conducted in May and June at the Centre audiovisuel Simone de Beauvoir (CASdB).

The CASdB is a feminist audio-visual archive, located in a small apartment of the elegant 28 Place Saint-Georges in Paris, right at the foot of Montmartre. 19th century buildings circle the quaint place, with a fountain laying at its centre. All of this, and the Theatre St-Georges, where Truffaut shot some of the sequences of Le Dernier Métro (The Last Metro, 1980), constitute the Parisian urban background in which the Centre Audiovisuel Simone de Beauvoir currently finds itself. However, with the bobo[i] atmosphere of the square, the role and meaning of the feminist archive is ironically enhanced, as its vault of subversive material is tucked away in a historic building within a trending hotbed of Paris. The existence of this archive is known mostly to the people who work there and or to feminist locals and tourists, queering Place St. Georges by means of the center’s mission to challenge a canonical and dominant history, bringing forth a counter-history of the feminist struggle, encased by this archive. The collection of feminist and LGBTQ militant videos preserved at the Centre Audiovisuel Simone de Beauvoir plays a crucial role in documenting and sustaining the cultural memory of the women’s movement and of feminist struggles, thus helping to institutionalize and integrate feminist historiography in France.

Figure 1: 28, Place St George, Paris. The Centre Audiovisuel Simone de Beauvoir is located on the fourth floor of the mansion that was the residence of the famous French courtesan La Paiva in the XIX century.

The origins of the center are a part of the same media history as that of the 1970s, which saw women and feminist militants able to take on video technology in order to document the activities of the feminist movement and to create experimental work. This largely became possible given the flexibility of the new filmic medium. Instead of the heavier, outdated film equipment, the ease of video-taping allowed for these projects to emerge despite the lack of solid infrastructure available throughout the transition from film to video in the industry, especially for women (Jeanjean 2011). In 1982, Carole Roussopoulos, Delphine Seyrig, and Ioana Wieder, founders of the video collective Les Muses s’amusent in 1974, spawned the CASdB in collaboration with and thanks to the support of both grassroot feminist collectives as well as institutionalized feminist groups. The mission of the Centre was to archive, and support the production and dissemination of feminist and queer militant films and videos. In practice, since 1982, the centre has been active in promoting feminist works, as well as devising and instituting a distribution infrastructure built to circulate such work.[ii] Moreover, the center’s distribution and exhibition practices, which take place mainly through community-based screenings, expands the archival function of the CASdB beyond one solely of preservation. Similarly, CASdB organizes educational activities in schools and prisons, using the resources of its catalogue to inform of the necessity to deconstruct gender stereotypes in media. Finally, today, the center has established a partnership with Bibliothèque Nationale de France, the official French state archive, to digitize the videos of its collection. Through these operations of “remediation” and “recontextualization,” which Brunow finds characterizing contemporary archival practices across several European film archives (2017:98), CASdB creates a collective audiovisual memory, a testament to the feminist cultural and political militant experiences from the late 1960s onward.

The main collection of the archive is made up of feminist and LGBTQ videos made in France, including Sois belle et tais-toi ! (Delphine Seyrig, 1976) and more recent No Gravity (Silvia Casalino, 2011). The archive also stores books, distribution catalogues, programs of feminist film festivals and cultural events, journals on feminist film theory, like the Sorcieres and Les Cahiers du GRIF, film paratexts (such as posters and catalogues featuring said films), as well as dossiers on feminist filmmakers. Furthermore, the CASdB houses a special “metatextual” collection of documents that together reassemble the origin story and overall history of the center. This variety of collections, thus, provides a reservoir of primary sources that not only allow for historiographic research on the women’s movement in France, but also, more importantly, helps retrace the very establishment of feminist film culture. The audiovisual texts, indexed in their digital database, remain the primary focus of the centre, with digitization fast becoming the CASdB’s leading task. Through its collection of militant videos, contemporary documentaries and experimental videos, the centre plays a crucial role in substantiating the legacy of women’s and queer cinema. Archival research at the CASdB enables one to get to know the formal strategies involved in video-making within militant feminist media production as well as the ability to retrace the work of women in the film and video industry at large.

Seeing as my doctoral research tackles the genealogy of transnational feminist film culture, when conducting my field work at the CASdB, I was particularly interested in looking for the paper trail of exchanges, collaborations, and correspondences between different locally-situated feminist groups and artists that were active in fostering the engagement of women with media technologies and providing platforms for the circulation and exhibition of women’s films and videos. Thus, I divided my archival research between looking through boxes of feminist journals and film paratexts as well as watching videos catalogued in the database of the Centre. The militant practices documented and archived at the CASdB bring to light the complexity and the variety of experiences that characterize the women’s movement and practices around feminist film- and video-making.

The documentary videos I encountered demonstrate the establishment of feminist circuits of solidarity — both at the level of grassroots politics and of theoretical conversations, since the 1960s. For example, the documentary Manifestation à Hendaye-5 octobre (Anne-Marie Faure-Fraisse & Isabelle Fraisse, 1975) exposes the experience of a march organized by French feminists to support Spanish women protesting the Francoist dictatorship. The film lingers on the moments of discussions among the participants after the march, who reflect and make explicit the links between the feminist movements and antifascist struggles. On the other hand, footage from American Feminism (Beauvoir et les Québecoises) (Luce Guilbeault, year unknown) and Flo Kennedy, portrait d’une féministe americaine (Carole Roussoupoulos and Ioana Wider, 1982), captures the commitment of militants from various contexts to create feminist theory through conversations with other feminists from different contexts, foregrounding what Adrienne Rich would call “politics of location” (1989), instead of a universal feminist discourse.

During my residency at the Centre, I was given a desk and access to a hard disk that stores most of the digitized videos of the catalogue. As I was watching videos at the computer or browsing amidst the boxes containing posters, brochures, and catalogues — I was sharing the work space with Anna, the person in charge of distribution, Annette, the accountant, and the interns, Aliénor and Peggy. Nicole, the director of the center, would sometimes join us, too, if she was not giving educational workshops on gender stereotypes or travelling the film festival circuit. My conversations and exchanges with these archivists and administrators about feminism, film, theatre, and feminist queer spaces around Paris became as important as the archival objects and audiovisual texts that I was studying. In this respect, conducting research at a small archive like the CASdB allows for the researcher to work tête-à-tête with varying feminist media practitionners. In this way, it becomes clear that the archive is not monolithic, static, nor neutral, but an active assemblage — performatively brought about by the work of people (Ghani). Especially if considering the case of a feminist (counter-)archive, the collaborative methods of working as well as horizontal decision-making across the collective at the CASdB points at the affective labour involved and required in the functionality and maintenance of the archive. Immersing into archival research at CASdB gave me access to substantial historiographical media, but also functioned as a training session for developing feminist methodologies of labour, research, and collaborations.

Link to Centre Audiovisuel Simone de Beauvoir website: http://www.centre-simone-de-beauvoir.com

Acknowledgements: Many thanks to Nicole Fernandez Ferrer, Anna Dzhangiryan, Annette Gourdon, Aliénor Grancher, and Peggy Préau for all their assistance and lovely conversations! Thanks in particular to Nicole and Anna for re-reading the piece.

[i] In the young and colloquial register of French, this term designates the French Parisians “hipsters”. The term is a portmanteau of the words bourgeois and bohemian.

[ii] A very accurate reconstruction of the history of the centre was written by Joelle Bolloch. Her Historique du centre, from which factual information in this paragraph is drawn on, is available online at: http://www.centre-simone-de-beauvoir.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/HistoriqueCASdB-Mai2017.pdf .


Brunow, Dagmar. 2017. “Curating Access to Audiovisual Heritage: Cultural Memory and Diversity in European Film Archives.” Image & Narrative 18 (1): 97-110.

Ghani, Miriam. 2015. “What We Left Unfinished. The Artist and the Archive” in Dissonant Archives. Contemporary Visual Culture and Contested Narratives in the Middle East, ed. Anthony Downey. London: British Academic Press. 78-120.

Jeanjean, Stephanie. 2011. “Disobedient Video in France in the 1970s: Video production by women’s collectives”. Afterall: A Journal of Art, Context and Enquiry 27: 5-16.

Rich, Adrienne. 1989. “Notes toward a Politics of Location” in Blood, Bread, and Poetry. New York: Norton. 210-231.

Ylenia Olibet is a PhD candidate at Concordia University, Montreal, Canada. Her doctoral dissertation focuses on contemporary feminist film culture in Quebec from a transnational perspective, under the supervision of Professor Rosanna Maule. Her research is funded by the Fonds de Recherche du Québec – Societé et Culture. She is the co-editor in chief of Synoptique – An Online Journal of Film and Moving Images Studies. She is also affiliated to the Global Emergent Media Lab where she currently curates the Works-In-Progress workshops series.

Disclaimer: The IAMHIST Blog is a platform that offers individual scholars the opportunity to present their work and thoughts. They alone are responsible for the content, which does not represent the view of the IAMHIST council or other IAMHIST members.

Producing a binaural radio play for telling the history of 3D sound recording

Stefan Krebs, Luxembourg Centre for Contemporary and Digital History (C2DH)

29 October 2019

The following paper was presented in the session “Best practices in alternative (academic) publishing on media history” at the 2019 IAMHIST symposium in Dudelange.

In 1973, binaural stereo was introduced to the German public at the International Broadcasting Fair in Berlin. Based on the invention of artificial head microphones (also called dummy head or Kunstkopf microphones), binaural stereo provided facsimile sound recordings that enabled listeners, when listening with headphones, to experience the spatial acoustics of the original recording situation. During the fair, Berlin-based radio station RIAS broadcast the first binaural radio play, “Demolition”. Radio listeners and journalists praised this first binaural radio drama for its “super stereo” quality and the highest fidelity ever heard. Despite this remarkable response, German broadcasting stations were reluctant to adopt binaural stereo, and most sound engineers refused to use Kunstkopf microphones. They alluded to certain technical shortcomings of binaural stereo in general, and to the issue of available microphone models in particular. However, the rejection of binaural stereophony by the radio industry was in fact based on contemporary listening and recording practices rather than on the actual technical shortcomings of binaural stereo.

This, in brief, is the story told in the radio play “Splendour and misery of Kunstkopf stereo [in German: Glanz und Elend der Kunstkopf-Stereophonie]”, which I want to present today as an alternative approach to historical storytelling. The production of the radio play was part of a broader research project, funded by the Luxembourg National Research Fund (FNR), on the failure of binaural stereo. The project combined ideas from the history of science, media and technology with models of path dependency from innovation studies.

Before I tell you more about the radio play, let me first explain what binaural stereo is. “Binaural” simply means “with both ears”. The term emphasises that our “normal” auditory experience is shaped by the fact that we listen with two ears. Human spatial hearing largely depends on binaural listening, since our perception of the direction and distance of a sound source is shaped by tiny differences in time and intensity between the two ear signals. Binaural stereo, or 3D sound reproduction, means that a sound is recorded, transmitted and reproduced in such a way as to deliver the same auditory signals to listeners’ ears as they would have received in the original recording situation, giving them the impression of being present during the actual recording.

Binaural sound reproduction can (only) be achieved through Kunstkopf recordings and headphone reproduction. A Kunstkopf is a manikin with microphones in his ears. I say “his”, because all commercially available artificial heads are designed with the physical properties of an average male head. Artificial heads for sound recording have been well known since the 1930s, and the term “Kunstkopf” was coined by researchers at the Philips Laboratory in Eindhoven in 1939. In around 1931, researchers at Bell Telephone Laboratories in Murray Hill, New Jersey, constructed the first artificial head microphone. They used a manikin’s head and mounted microphones on the cheeks, roughly where the ears would have been. Capturing sounds with this type of microphone and reproducing them with head receivers provided what they called “true auditory perspective”. In 1934, Bell engineers J. C. Steinberg and W. B. Snow defined “true auditory perspective” as sound reproduction “which preserves the spatial relationship of the original sounds”. During the winter of 1931-32, Bell engineers Karl Hammer and W. B. Snow developed a full binaural system. It consisted of an artificial head, nicknamed Oscar, a set of amplifiers and equalisers, and 32 pairs of head receivers, which “ideally” reproduced “in a distant listener’s ears […] exact copies of the sound vibrations that would exist in his ears if he were listening directly.” Philips engineers developed another Kunstkopf in the late 1930s, but all early Kunstkopf systems suffered from the still immature state of microphone technology, for example the fact that microphones were too large to actually mount inside the ear so they were instead placed on the cheeks.

It was only in the 1960s that various research groups in Germany started to build new artificial heads. At the outset they had different research agendas and experimental set-ups: for researchers at the Heinrich Hertz Institute in Berlin and the Institute for Technical Acoustics at the Technical University of Berlin, the Kunstkopf was a technical means to investigate room acoustics, while scientists at the Third Institute of Physics at the University of Göttingen used a Kunstkopf to study human spatial hearing and engineers at the Institute for Electrical Communications Engineering at RWTH Aachen University deployed their binaural system to investigate binaural hearing aids. Artificial heads captured sounds for subjective listening tests but were also used for electro-acoustic measurements. Researchers conducted localisation experiments with music, speech, noises and pure tones, measured ear signals and impulse responses, and computed auto- and cross-correlations of ear signals and head-related transfer functions.

Different experimental versions of the Berlin Kunstkopf from Plenge, Wilkens and Kürer, 1976 (Courtesy of Ralf Kürer)

In around 1967, Georg Plenge, Henning Wilkens and Ralf Kürer from the Heinrich Hertz Institute in Berlin started to build their Kunstkopf model for acoustic research, but during their experiments they realised that binaural technology had the potential to fulfil the old high-fidelity quest of bringing the concert hall into the living room, or, as they put it, of transferring the domestic listener into the concert hall. They collaborated with the well-known microphone manufacturer Neumann and in 1973 they presented the Kunstkopf KU80, which was also used for the recording of the first binaural radio play mentioned above.

During the research project “Failure and Success of Dummy Head Recording: An Innovation History of 3D Listening”, based largely on traditional archival research and some oral history interviews, Andreas Fickers and I discussed the idea of conducting a small media archaeological experiment using old Kunstkopf technology. “Experimental media archaeology” extends the traditional discursive approach to media archaeology with hands-on experiments. Inspired by John Ellis’ ADAPT project, we also thought about reuniting historical actors with historical technology. Unfortunately, we were unable to reassemble the production crew of the first binaural radio play. So we decided instead to turn ourselves into the experimenters and to produce a binaural radio play on the history of binaural recording. During my research in the historical archive of Bavarian Broadcasting Munich, I met one of the radio editors, Werner Bleisteiner, with a special interest in Kunstkopf history. I told him about our idea for a historical re-enactment and he invited us to record it in one of the large radio play studios using old equipment from Bavarian Broadcasting.

The radio play was accompanied by a slideshow with historical images and photos from the production process that also provided English subtitles (Courtesy of Andy O’Dwyer)

The three-day recording session took place in Studio 9 of Bavarian Broadcasting in November 2016. I had written the script, Andreas agreed to speak – or rather to play one of the two main characters –, and the second protagonist was played by a professional stage actor, Stephan Wurfbaum. A former sound engineer who had made the first binaural recordings in Munich in the 1970s, together with the retired chief engineer of Neumann who developed the second Kunstkopf model in around 1980, agreed to assist us as historical and technical advisers. Werner Bleisteiner was the producer and a young sound engineer, Christian Schimmöller, was responsible for the recording and technical editing.

The storyline of the radio play “Splendour and misery of Kunstkopf stereo” is very simple. A journalist meets a media archaeologist to discuss the failure of Kunstkopf stereo in the 1970s. They meet in a recording studio where they investigate an old Kunstkopf – which we actually used for the recording. The radio play explains why 3D sound reproduction failed to revolutionise radio listening in the 1970s and, at the same time, lets listeners intuitively experience the fascinating effect of 3D sound reproduction.

The radio play was first broadcast by Luxembourgish public radio station “radio 100,7” on 11 June 2017, and we also presented it at several events for academic and non-academic audiences, including the Forum Z on “The future of storytelling in history”.

Participants at the IAMHIST symposium listening to the binaural radio play (Courtesy of Andy O’Dwyer)

I will close with some remarks on producing a radio play as a new approach to historical storytelling. First, the radio play tells a fictional story that is based on traditional historical research. It combines a very basic explanation of Kunstkopf technology with the historical narration of Kunstkopf stereo in the 1970s and interpretations of its failure to revolutionise radio listening.

Second, media history is also a history of the senses. Listeners’ subjective experience, past and present, is difficult to describe and evoke by means of a written account. Telling sound history through sound, by drawing on the “sonic immediacy” of listening to (reproduced) sound, can help generate new historical knowledge about past media practices.

Third, the advantage of a radio play is that, in using binaural technology, we can tell the history of 3D sound recording through a 3D radio play. The radio play enables listeners to experience the immersive quality of 3D sound reproduction for themselves. The binaural sound also draws listeners deeper into the storytelling and helps to evoke the historical fascination with the technology.

We do not claim that the radio play offers listeners an authentic historical listening experience, but we hope that re-enacting the experience of listening to binaural sound reproduction as in the 1970s can help to inspire their historical imagination.

You can listen to the radio play on the C2DH website, where you will also find a slideshow with English subtitles here. Please do not forget to use headphones!


Krebs, S. (2019). Zwischen neuem „Hör-Gefühl“ und „Psychoterror“: Ost- und westdeutsche Diskurse zur Nutzung der Kunstkopf-Stereophonie im Hörspiel. In M. Hessler (ed.). Technikemotionen. Ferdinand Schöningh (forthcoming).

Krebs, S. (2017). The Failure of Binaural Stereo: German Sound Engineers and the Introduction of Artificial Head Microphones. ICON. Journal of the International Committee for the History of Technology 23, 113–143.

Krebs, S. (2017). „Glanz und Elend der Kunstkopf-Stereophonie“. Eine technik- und medienarchäologische Ausgrabung. In Fickers, A., Haude, R., Krebs, S. & Tschacher, W. (eds.). Jeux sans Frontières? Grenzgänge der Geschichtswissenschaft (p. 57–69). Bielefeld: transcript.

Stefan Krebs is Assistant Professor for Contemporary History at the Luxembourg Centre for Contemporary and Digital History (C2DH). He studied history, political science and philosophy at the universities Aachen and Aix-en-Provence. He received his PhD in the history of technology from RWTH Aachen University. As postdoc, Stefan Krebs worked in projects on the cultural history of car sound design (Eindhoven University of Technology); listening practices of engineers, scientists and physicians (Maastricht University); and the innovation history of Kunstkopf stereophony (University of Luxembourg).

Disclaimer: The IAMHIST Blog is a platform that offers individual scholars the opportunity to present their work and thoughts. They alone are responsible for the content, which does not represent the view of the IAMHIST council or other IAMHIST members.

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