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

The Erudite, Loquacious Polymath

However, instrumental science needs its neutral devices. And in Reeve’s writing the telegraphone is one of them. In fact, throughout his scientific detective stories (including the eighty-two Kennedy stories published by Cosmopolitan in the 1910s), Reeve uses fiction as a space for disseminating information about new gadgets. LeRoy Panek (1990, 57) writes: “Arthur B. Reeve, of course, is the fountainhead of the American scientific story.” Indeed, “science produced gadgets that made crook-catching easier,” and so “Reeve talks of the detectoscope, the telegraphone, and the teleautograph” (57). By no surprise, then, Reeve’s writing is frequently didactic, comparable to, say, the drabness of a 1980s personal computer manual.

For instance, in The Dream Doctor, Kennedy rambles about the telegraphone for nearly two pages (1914, 201-02). By way of a demonstration for Jameson, he unpacks the device for his reading audience: “This is the latest improved telegraphone, a little electromagnetic wizard in a box, which we detectives are now using to take down and ‘can’ telephone conversations and other records. It is based on an entirely new principle in every way different from the phonograph. It was discovered by an inventor several years ago, while experimenting in telephony” (1914, 201). Aside from the comparison with Edison’s noisy machine, Kennedy outlines many of the technical specifications I mention throughout this essay. He continues: “There are no disks or cylinders of wax, as in the phonograph, but two large spools of extremely fine steel wire. The record is not made mechanically on a cylinder, but electromagnetically on this wire” (201). Later, he adds: “There are no cylinders to be shaved; all that is needed to use the wire again is to pass a magnet over it, automatically erasing any previous record that you do not wish to preserve. You can dictate into it, or, with this plug in, you can record a telephone conversation on it” (201). Finally, readers get Jameson’s perspective as a listener: “[Kennedy] turned a switch and placed an ear-piece over his head, giving me another connected with it. We listened eagerly. There were no foreign noises in the machine, no grating or thumping sounds, as he controlled the running off of the steel wire by means of a foot-pedal” (202). Such lengthy explanations abound in Reeve’s prose. One of their social functions was to educate audiences (especially the middle class) about gadgets unfamiliar to them, and those gestures tend to manifest awkwardly as lectures given by an erudite, loquacious polymath.

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