Nagra posted a series of “NEW” YouTube videos about their recorders in its museum on their Facebook page back on May 12th, 2018.
This video below seems to clear up some long unanswered questions that never were talked about before from Nagra in this detail. Also, make note this video was made after my story was posted, The Mystery of the Nagra “Serie Noire.” My story was posted on Jwsound back in February 2018.
This Nagra video on the famous Nagra SN strongly states a project “started” by JFK “for the US Services” but was not released until the end of the 60’s. Previous stories and statements implied it was used as a secret recorder from 1960. That story is now debunked. My story below tells the details of what I thought happened and with this release of Nagras "NEW" video it now backs up what I wrote.
You will read that past magazine articles, many statements and stories over years in print and on the internet were not telling the real story of the Nagra SN but what everyone wanted it to be. It was always a mystery until now.
I’ll say it again - the Nagra SN will go down as one of the most famous precision reel-to-reel recorders in history, highly sought out by collectors thanks to the efforts of a young experimental Stefan Kudelski and his attention to detail which to this day that attention still carries on in Nagra products. Nagra products are timeless.
My only regret of starting this thread on Jwsound three years ago is it has brought such attention to Stefan Kudelski’s jewels that many never knew about before, making them highly desirable by some. That and the fact I didn’t buy more Nagra’s when I could.
The Mystery of the Nagra “Serie Noire"
The question always asked - What year was the first Nagra SN, the famous Nagra SN we always heard about, actually released? That’s easy; 1960; it’s all over the internet. You can find many sites, articles and tributes to Stefan Kudelski, all repeating these statements:
"The Nagra SN Serie Noire was originally ordered by President Kennedy for the American Secret Services" or "commissioned by the Kennedy administration" or "the American Secret Service."
The latest 2016 story was written with a few changes:
“Kudelski, the high-end Swiss manufacturer of portable audio tape recorders, was approached by the American secret services towards the end of the 1950s to develop an ultra-small recording device. From 1960, unbeknownst to the man in the street, the Nagra SN (for ‘série noire,' or ‘black series,' make of that what you will!) went on sale to selected customers. It would be another eleven years before the device became available to the general public.” (1)
Notice the line "make of that what you will". Never have you seen written the Nagra SN was developed, put into production and sold in "1960" other than that latest March 2016 article. Nagra always listed 1960 as the year of the Prototype SN and always without any other information. So many writers over the years just used their imagination and left the reader to "make of that what you will."
Nagra SN stories seem to grow on their own over the years, with every writer at the time either copying what others have written or added more to the story. It's easy to do with a secret recorder. Anything you write does not have to be backed up with fact since it was secret. You were not supposed to know the facts or ask any questions. How can anyone challenge if it's secret? Nagra has let the story write itself over the years, and the story just goes on uncorrected. It seems like "make of that what you will" is just what Nagra wanted, just use your imagination, that's the story.
Originally, Nagra did start all this by adding the President John F Kennedy connection with their Nagra SN descriptions, always mentioning but never releasing any photos of the actual SN Prototype.
Not ever seeing the prototype led everyone to believe this super-secret unknown covert recorder was used by the Kennedy administration. Today such JFK acknowledgments are not found anywhere from Nagra except in an obscure Discontinued Pro products category on Nagra's website. Stated in the description of their discontinued 1999 Nagra SNST-R (the last SN model made), Nagra states
"It’s a special version of the historical SN “Série Noire” originally ordered by President JF Kennedy for the American secret services and was even taken to the moon on one of the Apollo missions." (2)
Today, that is the only place where you will find Nagra using that JFK statement. Unless you search for it directly, you will never find it. The Kennedy Administration began January 20, 1961, when he was inaugurated as President of the United States, and ended when he was assassinated on November 22, 1963, a span of 1,036 days. (3)
Either Kennedy didn’t ask for it or Kudelski never had a prototype made in 1960. If they did have the prototype in 1960, Kennedy certainly didn’t ask for it to be developed. Could both statements be true if the word "circa" is combined with the date 1960? In the 2001 Nagra brochure, "Half a Century of Experience", the paragraph describing the Nagra SN states:
"The Nagra SN (Serie Noire) prototype was developed in 1960 but not put into production until 1970, as the miniature components available at the time were too fragile. It used silicon transistors, dry tantalum capacitors and later, surface mounted device (SMD) technology, many years before this SMD technology was adopted by others. This pocket-sized miniature recorder was destined for army and police forces (developed especially for the United States government or, more precisely, the United States Army)." (4)
No longer any reference to Kennedy or the Secret Service, it looks like a corrected version of all previous statements. That United States Army statement at the end of the SN description above is new for 2001. It always read before as Secret Service or Kennedy Administration. Now, for the ﬁrst time, it says the U.S. Army. In my researching about this JFK connection, I did ﬁnd the use of U.S. Army that may corroborate with the 2001 Nagra statement, but does not prove Kennedy asked for it. That 2001 description is probably the most truthful up-to-date statement Nagra has ever released about the SN.
It is documented that Kennedy was known to use tape recorders before and after becoming President. It's also well documented that Robert Bouck, at the time one of JFK's Secret Service agents, was ordered in 1962 to wire the White House with a recording system. He was also told to purchase recorders through the U.S. Army Corps and buy them on the open market so there would be no record from where the recorders came from. Kennedy recorded approximately 260 hours of recordings beginning on July 30, 1962 and ending November 8, 1963. There is no mention of any Nagra brand recorders even though other brands were mentioned. (5)
To add to this mystery, Nagra has also stated on one of their website's History section:
"…in 1965 the US Agencies start using the Nagra SN secretly." (6)
If this statement is accurate, then where are these early 1965 SN recorders today? Doubtful and unsure of this time frame, I contacted Nagra in Switzerland with my questions. In an email dated Aug 4th, 2016, Nagra informs me the 1965 date is wrong:
"… the correct date is 1971. The information you have found Nagra Kudelski Group historical milestones) is inaccurate! (We will ask NAGRAVISION to correct it.) Please refer to OUR website for the accurate dates and information.
The prototype we have was the original unit designed in 1960 yet never produced. The first “official” SN was not developed until 10 years later circa 1970, and the first units we actually sold in 1971." (7)
Nagra has been acknowledging that 1965 date since the year 2000. It was used in their Annual Reports for multiple years on and off as the first year the Nagra SN was used by the U.S. agencies secretly. That statement has now been debunked by Nagra as inaccurate and has been corrected. Nagra no longer makes that statement on any of their latest publications. No evidence to date has been found to conﬁrm Nagra’s original 1965 U.S. statement to be accurate.
To the contrary, the ﬁrst public showing of the Nagra SN occurred when Stefan Kudelski introduced the SN at the London Professional Audio Exhibition in June of 1970. (8)
Another document below is the ﬁrst known Nagra SN price list, dated October 1970, from Hayden Laboratories Ltd. It shows the very ﬁrst prices of Nagra SN and accessories in its infancy. (9)
As further evidence against the earlier 1965 date, the second page of that price list shows that major necessary accessories were still being developed as of the October 1970 printing, such as the carrying case and the remote control, both of which would be essential in covert recording use (i.e., if the recorders were used secretly since 1965 (for ﬁve years), the remote and carrying case would already have been successfully developed.
Nagra now considers the prototype date “Circa” 1960. (15) By using the word circa, one can now believe the prototype SN was developed after 1960 and during the JFK Administration, making the Nagra JFK connection more authentic. Now it’s possible JFK’s Secret Service agent Robert Bouck did ask Mr. Kudelski to make a secret recorder for the U.S. Army Corps. If correct, this is where the "Secret Service," "JFK," and the "U.S. Army Corps" fits into all of Nagra's past statements. Since JFK’s sudden death, with the fact it was an assassination, it moved the world. With the secrecy involved in Robert Bouck asking for it on the open market and avoiding the standard U.S. government purchasing and documenting channels, it was now best-left alone, so the deal died when Kennedy did. The SN at that time, not yet a functional unit, was put on hold and never fully realized until 1970, just as Nagra states. Kudelski, being somewhat impressed with the outcome of the completed SN and the fact Kennedy did ask for it, never dropped the Kennedy storyline once production began in late 1970 and also never elaborated it either.
Nagra used the one part of this SN story that may have been true - that Kennedy did ask for it to be developed - and kept the storyline to their sales advantage throughout the early SN years. The more secret and intriguing it sounded, the more appealing it was for sales. Saying John F Kennedy asked for it didn’t hurt either. That statement was the truth, Nagra had every right to use that statement in their advertising. It became the perfect scenario; it’s secret… there is no need to say anymore, and because it was secret, no one could expect any answers. The idea that one assumed it was “used” by the Kennedy administration complicated things because dates, times and facts were not clear if someone truly thought about it. So for many years, Nagra tiptoed around the whole subject, and sadly the JFK connection is rarely mentioned anymore. The 1965 date that was used many times since the year 2000 is now dropped from their latest publications
There has never been any credible evidence JFK asked for one or that a usable pre-1970 Nagra SN ever existed. The fact is no one may have known JFK asked for it, except for Robert Bouck and Stefan Kudelski. Since Robert Bouck died on April 27, 2004 at the age of 89, and Stefan Kudelski on January 26, 2013, at the age of 83, maybe no one will.
Perhaps the mystery of the Nagra SN is even more mysterious than one may have thought. It is possible, but not confirmed, that Nagra was just enjoying the publicity of the JFK story along with the marketing enjoyment of the intriguing possibilities that others have written into the story. Going forward, we may never see Nagra use that 1965 date or the Kennedy connection again, but they also didn't remove the old versions for reasons that are unknown. One thing is clear - there has been no evidence of a usable, secret Nagra "Serie Noire" (black series) SN recorder, before, on, or after 1970.
There was only the one Circa 1960 prototype, nicknamed Serie Noire. Anything else was just a myth that has been kept alive all these years with bits and pieces of JFK and tantalizing dark spy statements like in the 2016 Elektor magazine’s story where we started.
Nagra never released any written precise information for reasons as if to say “make of that what you will” which everybody has done over the years.
The secret that Nagra kept all these years was not, there was a secret Nagra SN during the 60’s, the secret was, there wasn’t one.
This could be just another version to the Nagra Serie Noire Mystery, but to believe the opposite, one would have to believe there was a production of 1960 Nagra SNs that were in use for ten years without anyone knowing about it, even the people who supposedly would have used them. Ten years worth of one brand of recorder does not disappear off the face of the earth without a trace or even a scrap of evidence they ever existed. One would think you could find people today who would have used them, but when people in the “ know" were asked, they don't remember using, seeing or hearing about a Nagra SN before 1970.
"I met with some FBI and State Department retirees yesterday, and they could not provide any definitive Nagra details. They all used the recording gear, but they could not recall when their use started or ended. Two of them specifically mentioned the Mohawks! They confirmed that nothing about any Nagra gear itself is (or has been) secret or classified. Its commercial gear, period. Commercial gear by its very definition cannot be “classified”. (10)
“Nagra Recorder” and “classified” should never appear in the same sentence unless “ classified ” refers to the contents of the recording or the sources and methods of collection. Commercial Nagra recorders would not be “classified “ even if the manufacturer or certain customers did not want their existence or use to be widely known. (11)
“I have not used a Nagra SN before 1970” (12)
Legend has it that the SN or Serie Noire (Black Series) was commissioned by President Kennedy for use by the American Intelligence services and the CIA.
"I know of no independent factual support for the first underlined part of this statement other than the company's own press and repeated rumors, but I can confirm that Nagras were used extensively by the British, Stasi and other European services. They were also used by the CIA, FBI and other US intelligence and law enforcement agencies.” (13)
That said, you would also have to believe this is the world's best-kept secret of all time. No evidence has been found as of this printing that a Nagra SN was used before 1970, just as Nagra now states today. So in the future when you see another mysterious Nagra Serie Noire story, ask, what proof do they have.
make of that what you will...
The Circa 1960 Nagra SN Prototype
In Switzerland there sits the "one" Nagra SN Prototype proudly on display in Nagra's private collection, as it should. Two things come to mind when viewing the first picture.
1) Nagra no longer considers the 1960 date, now “Circa” 1960, according to the name tag.
2) The name Serie Noire is not on the name tag, only SN,
When asked about the name SN and Serie Noire, a former employee of Nagra said:
It's not "Serie Noire” That expression I only heard from you for the first time. Even at the factory I never heard "Serie Noire." The employees at the time referred to the SN line as
SN means "Small Nagra," SNS means "Small Nagra Slow," SNN "Small Nagra Nab," etc. and the IS meant "Intermediate Size." (14)
In all fairness, this employee worked on SNs and JBRs from 1977 to 1988, so one would not suspect it would be the same atmosphere as in 1970, but it goes to show it was not a common name to use other than in print.
In this second picture above , the Prototype Nagra SN is entirely different from the 1970 production model SN. What stands out the most are the hinged top, no meter, tape heads and the tape path. The only similarity is the reel hubs. Particularly interesting is the pencil drawing on the deck which shows what Mr. Kudelski was thinking at some point in that 10-year development span, drawing in pencil where a meter should go, and other marks only leave us to ponder his thoughts.
In this last picture above, the bottom shows a fold out SN type rewind crank but on the bottom instead of on the top like on the production SN. Notice the components used in the making of this very iconic one of a kind recorder. These pictures show the engineering design of the original SN that morphed into the production model SN we know today. You wonder at that time if Stefan Kudelski ever thought the SN would go on to be the most famous covert recorder of all times and become one of his greatest achievements.
Stefan Kudelski and family are owed a great deal of thanks and appreciation for their advancements in miniature covert tape recorders. Nagra's highly skilled background in this field with full attention to detail, combined with the ability to produce an ultra-fine quality product, is the reason they are still successful in many different fields. Even today, a part of Nagra is still making the latest in security technology for Government agencies and law enforcement in one of those secret workshops behind the scenes.
Sources: The Mystery of the Nagra “Serie Noire”1 Elektor magazine, March & April 2016, p.1272 Nagra discontinued Products https://www.nagra.com/group/history Retrieved Feb.2018
3 Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ Timeline of the presidency of John F. Kennedy Retrieved Feb..2018
4 HALF A CENTURY OF EXPERIENCE, Nagra Booklet, 2001
5 Reprinted from The Presidential Recording: John F. Kennedy. The Great Crises, Vol. (New York: W.W. Norton),xvii-xx
6 Nagra Historical Milestones https://www.nagra,com/group/history Retrieved Feb. 2018
7 private email to the author from Nagra
8 DB magazine, London Professional Audio Exhibition, October 1970, p41
9 Price list, Hayden Laboratories Ltd, London, October 1970
10 Anonymous intelligence source
11 Anonymous intelligence source
12 Anonymous intelligence source
13 Anonymous intelligence source
14 Anonymous former Nagra employee.