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

“I Learned Their Methods”

Yet—not entirely unlike a speech by Fankhauser, an office scenario by Stearns, or an article in Electrical World—Reeve’s realism is not without its dramatizations and hyperbole. For example, of the twenty-six times the word telegraphone appears in a twelve-volume collection of Kennedy stories published in 1918, only ten of them are used within the context of either a demonstration or an explanation of the device. The other occurrences figure more centrally in the narrative, and a majority of these occurrences are imbricated with now amusing references to truth, eavesdropping, and accuracy.

Consider a scene from Constance Dunlap, Woman Detective, the twelfth volume in the Kennedy collection. Although Kennedy is not the protagonist in this volume, the style and narrative techniques of the Dunlap stories resonate with the balance of Reeve’s short fiction from the 1910s, one likely reason they are included in the collection. For instance, as with Kennedy, Reeve presents Dunlap as a scientific detective who uses forensic gadgets like the telegraphone to unveil criminal plots through trace evidence. In one particular Dunlap story, “The Gamblers,” the telegraphone plays an integral role in solving crimes of forgery and blackmail. Participating in what she knows is a fixed poker game, Dunlap waits for several characters to play manipulated cards (with trimmed edges) from the deck. She then declares: “‘You are a lot of cheats and swindlers,’” to which one of the players responds with a challenge: “‘Prove it’” (Reeve 1912, 115). And so Dunlap retrieves and demonstrates her telegraphone. From it float preserved voices, as if uncanned from the dead. Reeve writes: “Deliberately she opened the box, disclosing two spools of wire inside. . . . She turned a switch and the wire began to unroll from one spool and wind up on the other again. A voice, or rather voices, seemed to come from the box itself. It was uncanny” (116-17). The group of cheats and swindlers listen to recordings Dunlap acquired while eavesdropping on the wire and spying on them. They become frantic and instantly paranoid, imagining what truths and private conversations will be revealed. Practically of all them hear their illicit agreements played back at them, with one exclaiming: “My God! it’s a plant! . . . I’m ruined. There is no way out!” (118). With the telegraphone recordings in hand, Dunlap needs to say little. The evidence speaks for itself. It proves not only that the poker game was rigged but also that some stock certificates—which were guaranteed to the winner—were forged. For her findings, Dunlap gives the forensic gadget a bit of credit: “I learned all that over the telegraphone. I learned their methods, and, knowing them, even I could not be prevented from winning to-night” (121).

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