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How Steel Needles Were Made

The manufacture of steel needles to play the 78 records that came with the advent of the 78 record player were turned out by the 200 thousand a day. Prices ranged from 10 a 100 to 35 a 1000 for standard needles. Fine needles sold for 25 for 500 and spear type for 25 for 250, cheap considering the process that went into their manufacture. As demand fell off, labor and costs of materials went up so high that the prices of needles also went up. More and more manufacturers stopped making needles. Today no steel needles are made in Canada. Some are still made in U.S.A. and England, but as demand drops further and costs go up more manufacturers will stop making them or the prices will have to go up to meet the increased costs.

To make steel needles for 78 talking machines, a steel rod 3/16" diameter is used of carbon steel. The first process is to reduce this rod to 1/16" wire, the diameter of the standard needle, smaller for medium and still smaller for fine needles. The operations are as follows:

The rods are first heated to 5000 degrees in an annealing furnace and then cooled to soften them. In this heating and cooling process they become oxidized or coated with scale. To remove this, they are tapped with a hammer after which they are "pickled" in a solution of soda and water and again heated in another furnace cooler than the first to remove the effects of pickling. They are then passed to a wire drawing machine, where the 3/16" wire is drawn through a die about 1/8" diameter, the size of #8 wire. Drawing compresses and hardens the wire making it necessary to repeat the annealing process before another reduction in diameter is possible. Therefore this process must be repeated about 5 times before reduction to 1/16" or #16 wire is obtained.

The long coil of small wire is now passed to a forming machine, in appearance like a lathe. As it is fed through it straightens and cuts it into pieces 18" long. These rods are taken up and taken to a grinding machine, an ingenious special mechanism which points the ends of about 150 at a time. They are fed to it sideways and held in exact position, fed through and turned, as they grind against the stone, by means of rubber-tired wheels or rollers. One end of the rods being pointed they are turned and again fed to the grinder to point the other end. The now double-pointed rods pass to the cutting machine. The operator feeds about 100 levelled by pushing against a plate to even them, places them in a cutting machine with guage set at 5/8" from the shear blade. Pressing a lever cuts off the 100 needles at one stroke. The shortened rods go back to the grinder and then to the cutter until the rod is used up. This is continued all day.

The now rough needles are spread evenly to the depth of an inch over the surface of a heavy iron plate or tray. While on this tray they are heated to a cherry red in a special furnace, then removed and put into large double cans containing whale oil or hardening oil to harden them. These tanks are kept in a water tank for cooling purposes, The inner cans have strainers in the bottom, so that when removed with needles in them the oil drains back into the outer can, which always remains in the water.

The needles, perfectly straight and hardened, but still rough and gummy with oil, are placed in huge pans or troughs which slide back and forth with a jerking motion, like an ash sifter, on the top of a washing machine. Here they are treated to a bath of soft soap or soda and water. After they roll about in the bottom of the pans and after a thorough shaking up in this solution, they are drained and while still damp, are placed in a Tin needle-box with 300 needles will tumbling machine like a slowly revolving barrel soon take the place of envelopes pivoted at an angle of 45 degrees. About double their bulk in sawdust is mixed with them and in a short time dries them. They are then separated from the sawdust by a vacuum that sucks off the sawdust but leaves the needles all dry.

It is now necessary to prepare their surfaces for the final polish, and to do this they are scoured. A batch of several thousand is mixed with a pasty compound, and the mass is wrapped into a cylindrical canvas packet about 5" in diameter and two feet in length. Several of these packets are bound together with strong cord and placed into a machine called a mangler in which they are rolled about back and forth between two slabs as one would make a roll of dough. After this careful rolling or massaging treatment is continued for some time, the needles, by rubbing against one another in the scouring compound, are thoroughly cleaned and smoothly surfaced and taken from the packets and rinsed in clear water. They then spend another turn in the sausage like packets and are rolled this time in fine polishing compound. From this last mauling they emerge as finished product and are sent to the stockroom to be weighed (not counted) into tins of 100 or more as required.

There are about 16 processes between the steel rod and the finished needle. Or, if we count the number of operations necessarily repeated in the wire drawing and annealing, pickling, hammering, washing, polishing etc. there are about 42 handlings in all and yet at no time is a needle handled individually.

Is it no wonder that manufacturers no longer produce the phonograph needle, especially with the demand dropping off, and costs rising, and still with this extensive process needles are still being sold at $2.50 for a 100. But not for long.