John Herbert Orr (1911-1984) was an entrepreneur, inventor, and engineer, who helped pioneer the use of magnetic recording technology in the United States. Orr’s use of German technology acquired during World War II, combined with ingenious engineering solutions, enabled his ventures to succeed. His first company, Orradio Industries in Opelika, Lee County, manufactured magnetic recording tape for both professional and consumer markets. Orr also left a legacy as a philanthropist and community booster in east Alabama.
John and Lois Orr Orr was born on a farm near Beauregard, Lee County, on August 19, 1911, to Robert and Molene Orr; he had four siblings. His parents hoped that he would follow in their footsteps and become a farmer. John, however, developed a fascination with the then-new technology of radio. He built his first crystal radio set at age 12 with money earned from hauling firewood to Columbus, Georgia. While still in high school, he taught Morse code to students at Auburn Polytechnic Institute (API-present-day Auburn University) in Auburn, Lee County, under the supervision of an API professor. The school had received a donation of a powerful radio transmitter in the mid-1910s, which Orr helped to run and maintain. He later helped to dismantle and reassemble this receiver when it was moved to Birmingham, Jefferson County, in 1925. Orr attended API for a single semester after graduating high school in 1928, but he soon withdrew in favor of entering the workforce.
In 1929, Orr relocated to Dayton, Ohio, to work for the Delco Corporation under Charles Kettering, one of the nation’s foremost electrical engineers. Although his first job was temporary, the connections Orr established at Delco would serve him well. In 1936, he accepted a job with Delco’s Frigidaire refrigeration division in Atlanta as a repair technician. Despite his limited formal education, Orr quickly advanced in the company and became an assistant manager by 1939. Switched to supervising the production of electrical parts for automobiles, Orr grew bored with his work, so he and some coworkers worked as consultants for newly built radio stations. This work required Orr to maintain his radio operator’s license, which had to be renewed in Washington, D.C. Traveling there in 1941, he met an official with the Federal Communications Commission who convinced him to take a test on his aptitude for radar systems. This led to a job offer from the U.S. Navy in 1942.
AEG Magnetophone Orr was eventually assigned to the North Africa Theater, where he participated in radio propaganda operations with the Psychological Warfare Division (PWD) of the Allied forces. PWD staff closely trailed the Allied combat forces during the invasion of Europe and they were surprised by the clear recordings of Adolf Hitler’s speeches broadcast constantly by German-controlled radio stations. Orr and his staff at the PWD realized that the Germans had invented a new way to record high-quality sound. In September 1944, the PWD discovered at a previously occupied radio station in Luxembourg the new German recording technology. Known as the Magnetophone, this technology was developed by the German industrial combine AEG (Allgemeine Elektricitäts-Gesellschaft, or German Electric Company) and recorded high-quality audio on plastic tape coated with metal oxide. PWD officials compiled extensive notes on the new technology, aided by interviews with German scientists and engineers. The U.S. Department of Commerce also aided in the transfer of knowledge about tape recording and other technologies after the war, including German technical information on magnetic tape. Orr would later rely on this information as well as captured examples of Magnetophone equipment to develop his own versions of the technology, as would other American companies.
ORRadio Plant Site Orr returned to Opelika at the conclusion of the war, determined to start his own tape manufacturing company. After several years of experiments in tape-coating processes, Orr established Orradio Industries in 1950. He financed the construction of the factory partly by selling stock certificates door-to-door. Despite technical difficulties and early production setbacks, Orradio Industries grew rapidly. Orr hired several engineers trained at southern engineering colleges such as API and the Georgia Institute of Technology to aid him in designing efficient production processes. Although Orr’s company was smaller than others that developed their own tape-manufacturing operations, he competed successfully with them through a combination of efficient management, advanced technology, and careful marketing. In 1959, Orr sold his company to the Ampex Corporation, a maker of tape-recording equipment. Under Ampex, the Opelika tape factory produced specialized audio and video tape primarily for the professional market. The factory passed through numerous owners but remained in operation until 2007, when the bankruptcy of the Quantegy Corporation forced it to close.
Irish Brand Recording Tape After the sale of his first company, Orr continued to be involved in the recording industry. In 1960, he founded Orrtronics, which manufactured lubricated tape for 8-track cartridges. He sold that company to Champion Spark Plug in 1967. In 1972, he founded the Orrox Corporation. This company served as the parent corporation for multiple ventures:, including Magna-tech, a tape manufacturing research firm, and CMX Video Systems, a maker of commercial video-editing equipment. Orr founded a museum of audio technology in Opelika and established the Foundation for Continuing Education, which worked to preserve historical educational material related to self-improvement and religious subjects.
Orr was highly involved in the Methodist church, and produced many sermons and other religious recordings. He was married twice, had a child with his first wife, and died in 1984 at age 72. He was buried in a family plot in Loachapoka, Lee County. His personal papers, other effects, and recordings are housed in the Special Collections and Archives Department at Auburn University.
The Alabama Music Hall of Fame named the John Herbert Orr Pioneer Award in his honor. It has been given to such innovators as Rick Hall, who cofounded Florence Alabama Music Enterprises (FAME), and music producer Jerry Wexler, who helped establish Muscle Shoals Sound Studio.
- Morton, David L., Jr. John Herbert Orr and the Building of the Magnetic Recording Industry, 1945-1960. Master’s thesis, Auburn University, Auburn, Alabama, 1990.