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

Fidelity and Deceit

Smith (1888, 116) hypothesized the results in aesthetic terms: “The cord . . . therefore contains a perfect record of the sound, far more delicate than the indentations in the tin-foil of the mechanical phonograph.” Not only would it be cheap and flexible; it could also “talk back” if rewound on a reel and redrawn through the helix at roughly the same speed of recording. Importantly, though, a recording could occur on the receiver’s end of the telephone, too. For example, Smith (1888, 116) writes: “our hypothetical young lady might, while listening to the impassioned pleadings of her chosen young man, be preparing the evidence for a future breach-of-promise suit.” Comments such as this one correspond with contradictions common to early representations of magnetic audio and the forms of listening it enabled: its noise-free character facilitates fidelity and deceit, immersion and distance, authenticity and disembodiment. By eliminating any audible mediation between a playback mechanism and its source medium, Smith’s inscriptionless process would enhance the clarity of communications and induce alienating effects.

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