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

Selling the Weird Instrument

Yet according to Technical World Magazine in 1906, Smith’s idea was in fact translated into a marketable technology. In “A Spool of Wire Speaks” by E. F. Stearns, audiences could read about “an instrument of most unusual appearance,” a “weird instrument,” “a box of something less than a cubic foot [with] two spools, five or six inches in diameter, filled with hair-like steel wire” (1906, 410). The device was of most unusual appearance because it resembled a telephone without being one. It was a weird instrument because it served a function people were unaware needed serving. And, as Stearns’s title indicates, it was wound with wire, not two hundred yards of Clark’s cotton thread. “But,” Stearns adds, “the weirdness comes when you listen”:

The demonstrator, say, has set the “speaking” switch, and you have spoken haphazard words into the transmitter; now the switch goes to “hearing,” and you listen. And the words come forth—not after the “scratchy” manner of the phonograph, not with the side noises so often incidental to the telephone, but clearly, distinctly, with a pure, clear-cut, flowing quality difficult to describe, but astounding to hear! (411)

All of the technical features that Smith imagines are present here, and they are presented in a magazine chiefly aimed at men already studying, working, and investing in the fields of engineering and applied sciences. In other words, “A Spool of Wire Speaks” is an advertisement in text form. Through hypothetical scenarios, it describes the “weird instrument” as it sells it, stressing several opportunities for technological innovation, like permanently recording otherwise ephemeral telephone conversations, easily editing and erasing dictations on the fly, and answering a phone in the absence of a subscriber.

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