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

Imagining Applications

At the Franklin Institute on December 16, 1908, Fankhauser presented the telegraphone, speaking little about its material specificities and instead favoring a hyperbolic assessment of its potential applications for occupations involving listening and inscription. In a written version of the talk, published in the Journal of the Franklin Institute in January 1909, he says: “I believe that the next few years will see a telegraphone installed in the office of every doctor, every lawyer, every banker, in the counting room of every trust company, and of every industrial or commercial establishment, large or small” (Fankhauser 1909, 41). He also predicts that the telegraphone will render typewriting and letter writing obsolete, and he dramatizes the range of its reach through a variety of conjectures. In railroading, the device will replace the telegraph; for stock quotations, it will supplant the telephone; in medicine, it will diagnose heart and lung ailments; and it will bring about the demise of stenographers in all realms of dictation. That is, all realms but one: justice. Fankhauser states: “While the human stenographer may never be eliminated in important legal proceedings, it is highly probable that an additional check will be kept in every court room by the installation of a telegraphone which will eliminate all chances of human mistakes” (44). When it comes to standing before the law, a faith in the medium faces its limits.

At the turn of the century, even a technocrat is unwilling to reduce justice to pure science, and in the courtroom the telegraphone is relegated from a producer of perfect records to a validation machine. If nothing else, this snippet of Fankhauser’s work exemplifies the various ways in which early magnetic recording was actively tied to the construction of human perception and memory. Fankhauser’s claim that stenographers will persist amid technological progress corresponds with occupation-specific modes of listening and writing, as well as the memory training and embodied habits associated with them. What’s more, it corresponds with the imagined range and robustness of the telegraphone’s diverse applications, however speculative they happened to be.

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