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 inscription methods and Edison’s tinfoil phonograph. 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-recorded. Intended as a mechanism for writing the voice from a distance, the telegraphone—which could only store approximately four minutes of barely audible sound—was an economic failure in the United States and Europe, reduced solely to military use by 1917. 

However, 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 affordances of the relatively unknown telegraphone, mixing technical specifications with paranoia about the infallibility of forensic science and disembodied voices forever recorded on wire. Despite the telegraphone’s economic failure, the magnetic aura of imperceptible audio and immaterial sound still gained traction in consumer markets well before tape in the 1940s. Through the use of the Scalar platform, this essay unpacks the often ignored, pre-1940s history of magnetic recording, with particular attention to how—through an interweaving of print fiction, sound transduction, storage media, audio playback, and visual culture—early magnetic recording materialized. In so doing, the essay offers scholars of both new and old media a sense of how we might better historicize the ostensible permanence and immateriality of contemporary data cultures and their digital economies.

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