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

The Perfect Record and Plausible Denial

Ultimately, then, this essay demonstrates how the physical materiality of early magnetic recording was itself enmeshed in popular culture and perception, even if it never generalized or achieved commercial success. Conspiracies on wire and love letters on thread appealed because they represented the impression of evanescent phenomena onto high fidelity, reusable storage media. Fleeting events and ephemeral voices would leave a trace, which could be captured and played back without audible aberrations. Yet the desire for a trace needed inventing, too. Magnetic storage did not attract attention simply because it was innovative or superior to its phonographic counterparts. It attracted attention because—much like data expressed on contemporary computer screens—it was perceived as an immediate medium for ideal record making.

Yes, ridding a voice of its ephemerality meant the opportunity to listen to it later. It also meant trace evidence or, as exhibited in a story such as Reeve’s “The Gamblers,” the translation of listening into leverage. In that story, indexical relationships weld canned sounds to bodies, and illicit agreements caught on wire accrue value. For Dunlap, magnetic recording also enables the administration of justice without an official court or a trial by the state. Meanwhile, for someone like Smith, Stearns, or Fankhauser, it is imbricated with measurability and productivity, where perception could be systematized through private acoustic spaces for isolated, immersed listening to dictations warranted, say, two hundred yards long. Of course, listening was all the more authoritative when the content was legitimate and not burlesqued, when two hundred yards of audio sounded as if it were floating into the ears, free from any intervening substance. It helped, too, that such sounds could be remembered with the simple press of a button. But perhaps most importantly, the audio could be easily erased, and the record could be expunged. Otherwise, magnetic recording would be too permanent; it would decrease individual authority over what remained in storage, as proof. That is, the power over how and when to listen demanded the freedom to plausibly deny ever making a record in the first place. Such is faith in a magnetic machine.

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