Stefan Kudelski: Inventor of the revolutionary Nagra tape recorder

Truffaut, Godard and Chabrol all credited him with making possible their working style

Stefan Kudelski, inventor of the first portable professional sound recorder, single-handed transformed the world of sound recording for radio, television and, most importantly, the film industry. His device allowed directors to throw off the shackles of studio-based filming, enabling them to film in an off-the-cuff improvisational style and to film anywhere and in any environment they chose. He won four Oscars and two Emmys.

By the early 1960s Nagras were standard in all three industries until the 1990s, when digital audio recorders came on to the market. The company now produces digital recorders, though competition from the Far East means they no longer dominate.

According to Chris Newman, a four-time Academy Award-winning sound engineer, "There was virtually no film made from 1961 until the early 1990s that did not use the Nagra."

Kudelski's first device, a reel-to-reel portable tape recorder called the Nagra I, created in 1951 while he was still a student, captured the imagination of Swiss radio stations before spreading farther afield. However, it was the recorder's third incarnation, the Nagra III, which set him on the road to revolutionising Hollywood as well as the British and French film industries.

Before the Nagra, film sets required sound recording devices that took several people to carry and manoeuvre them and usually had to be transported by truck. Coinciding with the portability and reduction in camera sizes, the introduction of the Nagra, weighing between 3.5-9 kilos depending on accessories, suddenly gave directors a new freedom from the conventions and high cost of studio production.

The Nagra became an essential tool for the on-location, often improvisational techniques of the young French New Wave directors of the late 1950s and early '60s, such as François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard and Claude Chabrol, as well as US documentarians like DA Pennebaker, who used the Nagra to record Bob Dylan's 1965 tour featured in Don't Look Back. Pennebaker, Godard and Truffaut all credited Kudelski with helping to make possible the informality and journalistic realism of their work.

The Kudelski Group went on to make covert recording and surveillance devices for a number of government agencies, including the East German Stasi and the CIA. In 1967, Nagra entered the military market. The first pocket-size miniature recorders, the SN Serie Noire, were originally ordered by President Kennedy for the American secret services.

Born in Warsaw, Poland in 1929, Stefan Kudelski completed his primary education before the family fled following the outbreak of the Second World War. Fleeing via Hungry and France, the family settled in Switzerland in 1943.

In 1948 Kudelski entered the Polytechnique de l'Université de Lausanne, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, graduating in electrical Engineering. By 1951 he had established an engineering design company and patented his first portable recording device, the Nagra I, (meaning "will record" in Polish); the size of a shoe box, the device was light, self-contained, portable and high quality.

Leaving university in 1952, Kudelski worked hard on improvements and later that year Radio Lausanne and Radio Geneva placed orders to purchase the Nagra I. By May, following the first international sound recording contest, some reporters became interested in the device with Radio Luxembourg ordering several.

In 1953, Kudelski started making their own parts for the upcoming Nagra II, as using third parties had caused delays, and defective and sub-standard parts. The new device was a success and the company expanded. In 1958, the Nagra III was launched. The solid-state machine, was fully transistorised and could synchronise sound with the film frames. Orders flooded in, including Italian broadcaster RAI for the 1960 Rome Olympics, US broadcasters ABC, NBC and CBS, and the BBC. A passionate sailor and aviator, Kudelski founded "Air Nagra" in the 1960s, flying businessmen from Nagra and other local companies around the world. It was dissolved in the mid-1970s.

Kudelski received Oscars for his technical contributions to film-making in 1965, 1977, 1978, and 1990. He received many other awards, including, the John Grierson International Gold Medal (1983) – joining luminaries of the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers that include Louis Lumière, Thomas Edison, Walt Disney, Samuel Warner, Leon Gaumont and Ray Dolby.

Stefan Kudelski, inventor and engineer; born Warsaw 27 February 1929; married Ewa (died 2000; five children); died Cheseaux-sur-Lausanne, Switzerland 26 January 2013.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Environmental Adviser - Maternity Cover

£37040 - £43600 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The UK's export credit agency a...

Recruitment Genius: CBM & Lubrication Technician

£25000 - £27500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides a compreh...

Recruitment Genius: Care Worker - Residential Emergency Service

£16800 - £19500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Would you like to join an organ...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Landscaper

£25000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: In the last five years this com...

Day In a Page

The long walk west: they fled war in Syria, only to get held up in Hungary – now hundreds of refugees have set off on foot for Austria

They fled war in Syria...

...only to get stuck and sidetracked in Hungary
From The Prisoner to Mad Men, elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series

Title sequences: From The Prisoner to Mad Men

Elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series. But why does the art form have such a chequered history?
Giorgio Armani Beauty's fabric-inspired foundations: Get back to basics this autumn

Giorgio Armani Beauty's foundations

Sumptuous fabrics meet luscious cosmetics for this elegant look
From stowaways to Operation Stack: Life in a transcontinental lorry cab

Life from the inside of a trucker's cab

From stowaways to Operation Stack, it's a challenging time to be a trucker heading to and from the Continent
Kelis interview: The songwriter and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell and crying over potatoes

Kelis interview

The singer and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell
Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

Britain's 24-hour culture

With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

The addictive nature of Diplomacy

Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
8 best children's clocks

Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea