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

Enculturating Listening and Memory

Indeed, once-new gadgets such as the telegraphone emerge recursively with other cultural phenomena, including new literary genres (e.g., scientific-detective fiction), labor practices (e.g., dictation in the workplace), communication networks (e.g., telephony), consumption habits (e.g., listening to messages on wire), and initiatives in education (e.g., technical instruction in the mechanical arts). The existence of such cultural forces does not suggest they are totalizing, revolutionary, or unicausal. Instead, the implication is that—with devices like the telegraphone operating as an instrumental object across disciplines—those forces are at once abstract and concrete, simultaneously weak and strong (Star and Griesemer 1989, 393). That is, Reeve, Fankhauser, and Poulsen used the telegraphone differently in unique instances; nonetheless, shared informational needs, listening practices, memory techniques, and ideologies existed across those uses.

Perhaps most widespread among them was the belief that magnetic storage would do more than extend the ear or reproduce noise-free audio. It would, to borrow from Jonathan Crary (2001, 42), allow people to express their “autonomous power to actively organize and impose [themselves] on a perceived world”—to make, if you will, records of their own. At the turn of the century, such expressions intersected with a growing distrust in the empirical knowledge afforded by the senses (e.g., Smith’s hypothetical young lady drafting a breach of promise suit), a rising demand for individuating and systematizing listening behaviors (e.g., speaking into receivers and listening through earpieces), and the increasing frequency of multitasking (e.g., look here, listen there). As one among many engagements with these tendencies, magnetic recording most obviously promised what Edison’s phonograph could not: sound so high in fidelity it would seem immediate and immaterial. Beyond that, it promised a means to treat sound discretely, a way to listen in fragments, to edit, and—as demonstrated by Dunlap—to erase. Yet more importantly, the plasticity of magnetic audio influenced and was influenced by the enculturation of listening and memory.

That very claim should remind media historians that the expression of power over a perceived world is never distributed equally. Even something as banal as listening is saturated with the politics of its time, from the gendered divisions of office labor and the obsolescence of stenography to the instrumentality of a scientific detective, the decline of type, and the dissolution of technology-free leisure time. Whether these ventures were commercially successful or “impactful” is merely one question among many. Throughout the early development of magnetic recording, they were impulses for social, economic, and technological progress. Moreover, this essay suggests that new technologies frequently serve as vehicles for a variety of often incongruous agendas, failed or not.

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