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


Intended for audiences across the intersections of literary criticism and comparative media studies, this essay highlights how magnetic recording was affiliated with permanent, immaterial sound during its first six decades (1870–1930). Oberlin Smith (1878) initially framed it as a scratch-free alternative to Menlo Park recording methods and Edison’s tinfoil phonograph. That is, magnetic recording “impressed” sound; it did not “inscribe” it. Later, Valdemar Poulsen’s research on the telegraphone, including his demonstration of it at the 1900 Paris Exhibition, suggested that even then magnetic recordings could be erased and re-impressed, affording at once the immaterial and material, impermanence and permanence. However, the telegraphone was an economic failure in the United States and Europe. Intended as a mechanism for writing the voice from a distance, it was reduced solely to military use by 1917. 

Nevertheless, author and amateur criminologist, Arthur B. Reeve, did write about the telegraphone during the 1910s and 1920s. Spanning magazines, cartoons, film, and radio, Reeve’s incredibly popular science fiction detective tales didactically introduced audiences to the presumably magical features of the relatively unknown telegraphone, mixing technical specifications with paranoia about the infallibility of forensic science and disembodied voices forever recorded on wire. With Reeve’s work in mind, this essay demonstrates how, despite the telegraphone’s economic failure, the magnetic aura of permanent, immaterial sound still gained traction in consumer markets well before tape in the 1940s. Through the use of the Scalar platform, the essay unpacks the often ignored, pre-1940s history of magnetic recording, with particular attention to how—through an interweaving of print fiction, sound transduction, and visual culture—early magnetic recording materialized. In so doing, it offers scholars of both new and old media a sense of how we might better historicize the simultaneous permanence and immateriality of contemporary computing cultures.

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