The Combination Machine:
A History Of Development

Copyright © 1995
The Technical Staff
National Federation of the Blind

          From the Associate Editor: Those who are lucky enough to have used the new combination cassette and record player now beginning to be available from the National Library Service (NLS) report that it is a wonderful innovation--one that may well change the reading habits of NLS patrons. President Maurer, who has been using one for several weeks, says that the quality of the tape deck is much better than that of the current playback machines. He also points out that the needle-protection feature in the record player portion is ideal for families with young children. When the machine lid closes, the needle automatically retracts into the tonearm. When it is opened again, the needle returns to the place where it was when the reader turned off the machine. To my mind, this feature verges on witchcraft, but there is apparently more. Records as well as tapes can be rewound, and cassettes can be directed to play the other side or second track with the flip of a switch. All this will soon be available to borrowers across the country. Here is the story of how this amazing machine came into being as recounted by the technical staff of the National Library Service:

          Since the inception of the Project, Books for the Blind, in 1931 and indeed since the establishment of a special reading room for blind people in 1897, the Library of Congress has been committed to providing the highest quality service for blind, and later physically handicapped persons. Over the years specialized playback machines and accessories have been developed to give patrons access to the program. In the development of these products consumers have always been intimately involved, since all the machines and accessories are developed and produced exclusively for their use.

          It was with this high level of consumer involvement in mind that NLS identified the need for a combination record and cassette machine in the early 1970s. As early as 1973 NLS began studying the feasibility of producing a machine in which a single set of controls would operate both a record player and a tape deck. It was hoped that such a combination machine would offer the advantages of smaller size, less weight, greater ease of operation and lower unit cost. In 1975 NLS conducted a broad-based user study that concluded that it should pursue developing such a machine.

          In fiscal year 1977 the research and development for producing a combination machine began with the issuance of a Request for Proposals "for design, fabrication, and delivery of combination talking book machines." Because no such machine had ever been designed for mass production, the contract included specifications that listed only the minimum functional requirements of the finished product. Requirements for existing record and cassette machines were combined to produce the specification. The features that would be unique to a combination machine were listed as ten "optional innovative features," including single motor drive, overall size reduction, and automatic reverse and track switching. No drawings or schematic designs were included. It was the contractor's job to develop a specific design for the machine. Because this was a developmental project, the functional specifications served as a starting point from which a combination of research, consumer evaluation, and field testing would yield a final design.

          As with all NLS machines, consumer input through field testing was anticipated and provided for at the outset of the contract. Two engineering design models (EDMs) were to be provided. The contract stated that "the performance and appearance of the EDM will be evaluated." The next requirement was fifty-five reproduction units for user evaluation with a production run to follow.

          The Request for Proposal was issued by the Library's Procurement and Supply Division, and two companies, Telex Communications and Video Research Corporation, submitted competitive bids. After a technical evaluation by NLS, the contracting officer awarded the contract to Video Research Corporation (VRC) of Riviera Beach, Florida. (The company later became Deltronics, Inc.) The contract was awarded September 13, 1977.

          During the course of the contract, there were reviews of the design and technical issues in the engineering phase. These were conducted by NLS engineers and quality assurance specialists meeting with the contractor's representatives. Ironing out design difficulties was expected to be a part of the natural course of a design and development contract.

          The changes in the performance schedule during the life of the contract reflected the results of the design development. New enhancements to the design naturally necessitated additional time in the contract schedule. The first of these readjustments came in January, 1978, after a meeting between NLS engineers and VRC representatives. Specific machine elements such as case design, switch design, batteries and other technical matters were discussed. These were all specific engineering problems and concerns that arose as a part of the development of the specifications and technical designs by the contractor. A revised schedule showed production, delivery and consumer evaluation would take place during late 1979 and 1980.

          On September 11, 1978, a change order was issued to allow for development of a cassette deck that could be used for both the combination machine project and future cassette machine contracts. The E-1 (easy machine) was later produced using the same cassette deck and many of the same advanced features as the combination machine. Further, the arrangement made would give control of tooling and design to the Library, provide technically superior performance and reduce dependence on foreign suppliers. The deck would have a three-motor design and an anti-jam feature.

          Tests of prototype designs took place in October and November, 1979. The two demonstration units underwent thorough testing, not only by NLS staff, but also by a consumer evaluation panel. Provided for in the contract, the evaluation by consumers was vital to the development of the machine. Consumers who took part in the evaluation were encouraged to test the units vigorously. Their task was not only to give input on the ease of use and the efficiency of the machine's operation but also to subject the units to normal treatment for a machine. Their suggestions were to be incorporated into final design plans. These were not changes to any existing specifications; rather they were to become part of the specifications that were still evolving. This prototype testing was considered a success because it pointed out specific areas for further development. The second change order spelled out the changes in engineering (reproduction) tooling and unit (production) costs needed to achieve these specification refinements. At the same time VRC was awarded a contract under competitive bidding procedures for production of the E-1 (easy cassette machine). This was a spinoff of the combination machine since it used the same cassette deck.

          As work continued there was constant refinement of the performance specifications by the contractor in conjunction with NLS engineers. In March, 1981, VRC produced forty-five reproduction units. NLS technicians tested them and identified several design problems. The defects included free-wheeling supply hubs, oscillations and speed maladjustments. These problems were corrected by the contractor and the forty-five units were produced for user field evaluation in April, 1981.

          This rigorous testing by NLS and refinements to the specifications further modified the design of the machine as new features such as direction sensing, side selection control, voice-over indexing and seven other features were incorporated. To accommodate these enhancements the production phase was rescheduled to 1982 and the contract amount increased.

          The consumer field test was completed in the summer of 1981 and as expected many improvements were suggested. Thirty-three specific changes were recommended by consumers. By December ten of the changes were in the process of being incorporated in the prototype design.

          On July 6, 1981, the Procurement and Supply Division issued a Request for Proposal to solicit bids on production of combination machines. The RFP was issued using the revised specifications as developed by VRC (Deltronics) in conjunction with the changes proposed by the consumer evaluation test. Three companies (Telex Communications, Deltronics and Interstate Industries) submitted responsive and responsible bids. Bidders were rated by NLS staff on their production capability responses to the statement of work and proposed innovative features to be added to the machine specifications. As with the previous contract, this RFP had built-in prototype testing by consumers and encouraged the contractor to develop new features for the machine. Emphasis was on designing a mass-producible machine that would incorporate emerging technology such as the microprocessor.

          The contracting officer awarded the combination machine development and production contract to Telex Communications, Inc. on September 21, 1981. They promised a design more realistically meeting production capability. Telex would use the functional design developed by VRC but incorporate microprocessor technology into some elements of the machine's functions. This would result in both a superior product and a machine that could be more easily mass produced. Telex was also awarded a contract for production of the E-1 (easy machine) under competitive bidding. It was to use the same cassette deck and microprocessor technology as that developed for the combination machine.

          The contract called for prototype machines to be delivered by March, 1982; a reproduction machine to be delivered six months after prototype approval; and complete delivery six months later.

          In February and March, 1982, NLS engineers and Telex representatives held discussions on the design of the turntable and tonearm. Telex provided a prototype that was tested and accepted by NLS in April, 1982.

          Design modifications continued through 1982 and in October a prototype machine was reviewed by NLS. The evaluation report suggested further changes in the design. These included rectifying problems with tape spillage, battery location, fast forward and rewind functions, and automatic/manual switch labeling. The process of refining the specifications continued to accommodate changing technology and the needs of the consumers. The first change order increased the unit cost and quantity based on the design changes.

          During 1983 and 1984 urgent consumer need gave high priority to development of the spinoff easy machine which was a direct response to a user study that showed that patrons needed a machine easier to operate than the standard cassette machine. The development of the easy machine went hand-in-hand with that of the combination machine. The cassette deck and automatic side-changing feature were a direct result of combination machine development. Prototype testing of the E-1 machine provided another opportunity for testing features which would also be an integral part of the combination machine.

          By January, 1984, Telex provided machine prototypes that were tested by NLS and found to be very close to the requirements. Two advanced prototypes for consumer evaluation were delivered in April of 1986. At the same time field testing of the easy machine continued, giving further feedback on features common to both machines. By November of 1988 the last of the production run of E-1's was delivered. The cassette deck proved itself reliable and efficient. NLS now could give the go-ahead for use of the same deck, as well as the other advanced features, in the combination machine.

          Developing technology and further input through consumer testing resulted in additional changes to the machine's specifications, particularly to the microprocessor program. Two hundred production control samples were tested by NLS, and modifications were made to the design during 1988 and 1989. In September of 1989, 200 units were sent to regional libraries for testing by consumers working in the libraries. In December of 1990 Telex produced for final testing by consumers 1,000 combination machines incorporating microprocessors with changeable programs. Currently the microprocessor is being reworked for a problem with a diode. It is expected that the 1,000 units will be ready for field evaluation shortly.

Webmaster's note

          I took part in the testing of this machine very late in the process. While I use it I do have a few reservations.

  1. The cassette player and turntable can not be separated so if one breaks down you have to send both back.
  2. The controls are very stiff. While this isn't a problem for some people it can and probably will be for many others.
  3. The track selection button, auto/manual switch, headphone and remote control jacks are on the side of the machine instead on the front; this certainly isn't disasterous but it is inconvenient.
  4. The lid falls off if you don't push it to the left when you open and close it.
  5. The sound quality doesn't seem as good as usual, which is saying something since the cassettes run at 15/16 i.p.s. and records go at 8 r.p.m.. Then again this may just be the fault of the small speaker.

          As I say, I'm using the machine so these items haven't scared me off, but I do think there is room for improvement.

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