Making the Perfect Record: From Inscription to Impression in Early Magnetic Recording

The Telegraphone

In the following paragraphs, I explore this articulation of early magnetic audio with perception, memory, faith, and record making, examining texts published between the 1870s and 1910s. Oscillating between technical, business, cultural, and literary approaches to media and technologies, my aim is not to privilege one approach over the others. It is to exhibit how they collectively inform a series of historical incongruities, all of which are anchored in a device called the telegraphone.

As this essay’s object of inquiry, the telegraphone becomes an overdetermined site of a shared investment: noise-free magnetic audio. Put to a variety of uses and saturated with an array of meanings, it was imagined as a way to individuate people through immersed listening to high-fidelity sounds. It also corresponded with the opportunity to store and consolidate those sounds for later listening: to defer what was once ephemeral. Both of these tendencies were compounded by claims that magnetic recordings were perfect documentations of actuality. For instance, Smith’s thread was perceived as immediate precisely because of its magnetic character. It would not “inscribe” or “write” sounds. It would “capture” and “impress” them, affording reliable, indexical relationships without perceivable traces remaining on the storage medium. But regardless of its rhetoric, the telegraphone was a commercial failure. It was never available for widespread consumption.

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