The Dalles native Austin Schulz is known as the “Archives MacGyver” at the Oregon State Archives.
The 2000 graduate of Wahtonka High School likes to figure out how things work, and a mystery presented itself shortly after he began working at the state archives in 2008.
The solution he eventually found — a resourceful setup worthy of the problem-solving TV character MacGyver — has saved the state an estimated $5.5 million, according to the Oregon Secretary of State’s office.
The story begins long before Schulz, 36, was even born. In 1967, the Oregon Legislature created landmark legislation when it made all of Oregon’s beaches open to the public.
The audiotape of those historic discussions was made on a machine that was only used by the Oregon House in 1967 and again in the 1969 session. Afterwards, the machine was used solely to play back tapes from those two legislative sessions. It eventually broke and was sent out for repairs in the early 1990s, but the repair shop closed and the machine was never seen again.
So, for at least 20 years, the state was left without any way to play back the crucial tapes that described the creation of nationally significant legislation.
Enter Schulz, who landed at the state archives after getting bachelor’s and master’s degrees in history.
He knew the lost machine was called the Rols Machine, a device so rare that when he called repair experts about it they’d say “the what machine?”
Archivists are researchers by definition, but even among his colleagues, he was the go-to researcher. He was also a tinkerer. He taught himself how to build computers, and likes to take things apart to see how they work, and to make them work better for his needs.
So he set to work, soon learning that the machine was designed in Germany, manufactured in Holland, and sold in the United States in a few places, including, as it turns out, Portland, Oregon.
The machine is actually a dictation machine meant for doctor’s offices. The state’s archivists have often joked and wondered about how it even came into its brief service at the Oregon Legislature.
Schulz began looking for a Rols Machine in 2010, got one in 2012 that wouldn’t work, and in 2013 finally found a working one on eBay being sold by a collector. The state archives paid $3,000 for it. Schulz studied the patent drawings for the machine to learn how it worked. “It’s unnecessarily complex,” he said. “It’s a really overdesigned machine.”
It records onto a tape that is two and a half inches wide. The spools of reel sort of look like toilet paper rolls. It records slowly, laying down sound as the readhead slides side-to-side. In all, the state archives have over 1,400 such rolls, each of varying length.
With a working machine in hand, the task was how to digitize the countless hours of audio recording to preserve it in the state archives.
It was possible to simply play the tape through the machine’s tiny speaker, and put another microphone right next to it to record the audio, but that would likely produce a lower quality recording and would require an extremely quiet room.
Schulz’s goal was to build an adaptor that would allow piping the audio output directly from the machine into a computer that would re-record the historic legislative sessions as digital audio files.
He began fiddling with the machine’s proprietary headset, being careful not to break it. The part he concerned himself with was the speaker, akin to one of today’s earbuds, and about the same size. A cord ran from the machine to the speaker, and when he removed the cord from the speaker, he had an ‘a-ha’ moment.
On the tip of the cord were two miniscule metal posts. Schulz found some 24-gauge, 2 conductor intercom wire, peeled back the rubber coating from one end of the wire, and carefully wrapped each strand of wire around a post. The posts were only just far enough apart to be wrapped without touching each other. “It was really difficult to get around because if they touch each other they won’t work, and there’s not a lot of space to work,” he said.
Then he connected the other end of the 24-gauge wire into a 1/8” mono in-line phone jack. He then plugged in a standard 3.5mm mono male to stereo female adaptor to switch the sound from mono to stereo. Finally, he connected it all to his computer using a 3.5mm audio cable, making it possible to digitally record the Rols audio tapes.
“I crossed my fingers and hoped it would work. I got it to start playing, you could see it come up on the screen and you could see the audio come up on the screen.”
Once he got the digital conversion working, he had another problem to fix. The machine would only play using a foot pedal, which was so touchy that while a little pressure would cause it to play, too much pressure would cause it to rewind.
“As luck would have it, there’s a book called Oregon Geographic Names and it’s the exact weight to engage the play function but not the playback function,” Schulz said.
The first tapes Schulz digitized were the beach bills. It was important to have the actual discussions available, since the transcripts of the sessions were not detailed enough to learn the nuances of legislative intent. And legislative intent matters in things like legal cases.
A further complication was that the tiny holes lining each edge of the tape were sometimes damaged, meaning they no longer fit on the sprockets that fed the tape into the machine. Schulz painstakingly hand-carved a few holes, but then lit on the idea of finding a leather punch that was the right size. He found one, put tape over the damaged section, punched in new, carefully aligned holes, and they were back in business.
Digitizing both legislative sessions is an ongoing project that he chips away at as time allows.
“It’s pretty interesting just watching the machine go,” he said. “It just makes this ‘click, click, click,’ like the entire time it plays. Every time I bring the machine out to digitize something [my co-workers] go, ‘Ohhh!’ Because it’s usually going to be a couple hours of ‘click, click.’”
As to where the $5.5 million in savings came from, that estimate comes via the work of a documentary filmmaker.
A man made a documentary in 2007 about the Oregon beach bills. He found a Rols player and hired a New York audio restoration company to make digital copies of it. That company estimated in 2008 that it would cost $75,000 to digitize all 20 of the beach bill Rols audio recordings.
Since those 20 rolls represented just 1.4 percent of the 1,400 rolls the archives had, it was clear that it would cost millions of dollars to have them converted to digital.
Schulz and the state archives won the Oregon Heritage Excellence Award in 2014 for their work, and Schulz has been invited to speak at conferences and has had other companies try to hire him away.
Only recently did the secretary of state learn about what Schulz had done, and put out a press release about it.
One state official told Schulz that the state used to give employees a percentage of what they saved the state. Alas, that is no longer a thing, as it would’ve obviously represented a sizeable payout for Schulz.
But he didn’t mind. “It’s all good. I’m just happy to be able to help. There’s something about helping to preserve our state’s history for the next generation — you can’t quite put a price tag on that. It’s pretty cool to be involved.”