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Protona Minifon
Monske & Co GmbH

Protona was a German manufacturer of Minifon miniature wire and tape recorders. The company initially started as Monske & Co GmbH but after financial troubles the activities were taken over in 1952 by the newly founded Protona GmbH. Over the years, the company changed hands a couple of times, as a result of which Minifon products were sold under different names, including Protona, Telefunken, EMI, and ITT. Minifon recorders were sold from 1951 to 1967.

Minifon recorders on this website
Minifon Mi-51, the first wire recorder from Protona
Minifon P 55, the successor to the Mi-51
Minifon Ataché, the first all-transistor tape-based Minifon
Minifon Special, a wire recorder for the secret services.
The world is in shock, when in 1951 the first miniature wire recorder, the Mi-51 is introduced on the Industriemesse (Industry Fair) in Hannover (Germany) [1] . For days on end, newspapers and magazines report about this unbelievable piece of modern engineering. At that moment, the Mi-51 is the worlds smallest recording device. It runs on batteries and uses a wire to record over 2 hours of sound. It would soon become a popular device in the USA.

Covert recording
Initially, the recorder is intended for inconspicious recording of conversations. German electro-mechanical engineer Willi Draheim starts development back in 1948. Shortly afterwards, he meets Nikolaus Monske, a Hannover business man, who has the desire to covertly record business conversations. Monske is irritated by the fact that despite a verbal agreement, his words are always twisted afterwards. Draheim thinks that his invention could be the solution to that problem, and together they set out to start a business.

With private money from Monske and help from his WWII Luftwaffe colleague Ernst Genning, Draheim establishes a workshop with a laboratory in Faßberg. After aprrox. two years, the first recorder is ready for production, and patents are registered in 20 countries. To allow series production of the recorders, Monske, with help from his brother and some external investers, on 14 September 1951 establishes the company Monske & Co. Without any help from banks.

One of the first customers, an American company, orders 120,000 machines and is prepared to pay US$ 50,000 up front. By the end of 1951, Monske & Co has about 70 highly skilled employees on the payroll and a few months later, this number has increased to 180. Because of the world-wide growing interest in dictating machines, they begin to target the machines at the business market as well. At the 1952 Industry Fair they can be found in the hall with Business Machines, rather than the hall with Electrical Machines.

Financial problems
In 1952, the company gets into financial trouble because of technical problems and supply problems in the USA. Many employees are sacked and even a financial injection of DM 500,000 by competitor Intona GmbH can't turn the tide. After negotiations with BRAUN and other potential buyers have failed, the company is left no other choice than to go into receivership.

At that point, German electronics giant Telefunken becomes interested. The minifon would fit-in perfectly with their existing product range. It could be combined with Telefunken Microphones and the recently aqcuired AEG Recorder Division. They miss the opportunity however, as the newly founded company Protona GmbH takes over the Minifon activities. Protona is founded by Liechtenstein business man Reinhold Stach, together with some financial partners. Stach is also one of the shareholders of competitor Intona. His unorthodox and firm control over the company will leave its impressions on the company and its employees in the years to come.

Nearly all fired employees are brought back on the payroll, and between 1952 and 1955 several 10,000s Mi-51 units are produced. Although this may seem like a high volume, it isn't nearly enough to fulfil all orders. The production capacity never reaches its full potential. The majority of machines that come off the production line, are sold to the USA and the United Kingdom.

In April 1955, the Mi-51 is succeeded by the P-55. It is presented to a selected audience, just a day before the opening of the 1955 Hannover Messe (Hannover Fair). The recorder is received very well, despite the fact that it is still wire-based, whilst the industry is moving towards the use of magnetic tape. The reason for this is simple. The P-55 can record for more than 2.5 hours on a single wire and battery (later models even 5 hours). No tape device on the market can do that.

In the following years, many P-55 units are built and newer models are introduced. In 1958, one of the shareholders gets involved in a schandal, but the company manages to escape another bankrupcy. The Minifon is extremely popular in the English-speaking world. In England it is sold by EMI. In the US, Protona is initially represented by GEISS, but from 1961 onwards, the P-55 is sold under the ITT brand, for a price of US$ 330.50.

Minifon Liliput
In 1958, Protona moves away from the use of minature valves, when their first all-transistor recorder is developed: the Minifon Liliput. It measures only 13.6 x 8.7 x 4.3 cm and is the smallest recording device in the world at that moment. Like its predecessors it is still wire-based.

Liliput is a beautiful machine, but their are problems as well. The battery, especially designed for this unit, isn't nearly powerful enough to enable the full advertised recording capacity of 4 hours. Minifon Liliputs are extremely rare today. Only a few have survived and it seems likely that they were only produced in small quantities. A good description of this model can be found in Ronald Schellin's excellent book Spion in der Tasche [1] .

Magnetic tape
Although Protona keeps believing in the strength of wire-based recording, they also see the need for tape-based systems. After a few years of development they finally succeed and in 1959 the Minifon Ataché is introduced. It is one of the first recorders in the world to use a tape cartridge. This cartridge would be the basis for a whole range of tape-based devices, such as the Minifon HiFi (for music recording), the Minifon Office (desktop dictating machine) and the Minifon Studio.

Spy recorder
In 1961, at the height of the Cold War, Protona introduces a recorder that is developed especially for the espionage business: the Minifon Special. Although all newer Minifon devices use magnetic tape at this time, the Minifon Special is wire-based again, because of its capability to make long uninterrupted recordings. It comes in two models: S (standard) and L (long-play). The L-version allows recoring of 5 hours without replacing the battery or the wire spool, whilst the S-version is limited to 'just' 2.5 hours. Still very impressive.

The size of the Minifon Special is just 10 x 17 x 4 cm, making it the ideal solution for body-worn covert recordings. Including batteries and wire spools, it weights approx. 800 g. It will become a popular recorder with law enforcement and intelligences agencies around the world, despite the high price tag of DM 985. It will be one of the last wire-based recorders in mass-production.

Early in 1962, Protona runs into trouble again. Due to a variety of technical problems with the Minifon Office, the inability to deliver machines in time and the increasing stocks, Protona is rapidly losing money. On top of that, Protona loses its 'motor' when owner Reinhold Stach dies after a brief but serious illness in February 1962. In August 1962, the company is eventually bought by Telefunken. Production of all Minifon models - including the wire recorders - continues, with the exception of the Minifon Office.

Although the Minifon Office is cancelled by Telefunken, it is reborn in 1963 when a completely redesigned Minifon Office is introduced. It is sold under the Telefunken brand and looks different from the rest of the Minifon series.

Even under Telefunken control, the tide can't be turned. Each year there are fewer orders and each year the stocks, and hence the costs, increase, until one day all interest in Minifon and its technology seems to be lost completely. Finally, in 1967, the curtain falls for Protona GmbH and its once so popular Minifon.

Between 1967 and 1978, Minifon repairs are handled by the newly established company Fechner-Schulte. After that, until 1985, Minifon units are repaired by former Protona employee Herbert Scheibner. Since then, Minifon recorders have become highly wanted collectors items.

One of the most important reasons for the downfall of the Minifon is probably the introduction of the Compact Cassette by Philips in 1964. It revolutionized the market for portable recording devices and became the world-wide standard for tape cartridges in the following decades.

The inventor
Minifon inventor, Willi Draheim did not take part in any of this. He had already left the company in 1952, after he sold his invention to Nikolaus Monske for DM 5000. He went to work for Engineering Company Bölkow in Stuttgard (Germany) where he designed the first all-transistor tape recorder the Tel-Tape. Over 50,000 Tel-Tape units were sold for the extremely low price of DM 89.50 (against DM 680 for the Minifon Mi-51).

The Tel-Tape was based on Willi Draheim's latest invention, known as the Butterfly Patent. In later years, many hundreds of thousands of Japanese tape recorders would be based on this drive mechanism.

Index of Minifon recorders
Minifon accessories
  • Protona Watch/Microphone
  • Minifon Holster
  • Minifon Tape Cartridges
  • Table Speaker
Other Minifon products
  • Minifon KW - Transmitter and Receiver=kw/index.htm
  • Minifon REX - Pocket Radio=rex/index.htm
  • Combi Minifon RC=rc/index.htm
Brand names
  1. Roland Schellin, Spion in der Tasche
    Detailed history of Protona and the Minifon recorders
    ISBN: 3-936012-00-8 (German)
Further information
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© Crypto Museum. Created: Saturday 24 March 2012. Last changed: Wednesday, 20 February 2019 - 09:33 CET.
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