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

Merely a Validation Machine

However, by the conclusion of “The Gamblers,” no one is formally charged or convicted of their crimes. There is no grand court scene. Instead, Dunlap administers justice by alternative means. With the evidence she has on record, she can easily leverage nearly everyone in the room. And among them is Mr. Drummond, who also happens to be a detective. Feeling some pity for (and thus power over) him, Dunlap decides to let Drummond go. Or, to be exact, she decides to expunge his record. The implications of this forgiving gesture are less interesting than its ultimate expression: “‘Drummond,’ remarked Constance significantly, as though other secrets might still be contained in the marvelous little mechanical detective, ‘Drummond, don’t you think, for the sake of your own reputation as a detective, it might be as well to keep this thing quiet?’” (1912, 121). As one may predict, keeping things quiet does not imply merely hiding the evidence. With other secrets potentially impressed on the magnetic medium’s nonvolatile memory, it implies complete erasure. Fortunately for Drummond, Dunlap says erasure is afforded by the telegraphone. Reeve describes that process with some flourish: “Deliberately she passed the magnet over the thin steel wire, wiping out what it had recorded, as if the recording angel were blotting out from the book of life” (122). Dunlap then allows Drummond to test the wire himself to determine whether it is, in fact, blank. It is indeed, and the scientific detective implores him, too, to permanently forget what happened.

When caught on the wire, such is the simultaneity of burden and relief. Although the record may be wiped, the witnesses remain, with Drummond’s career still at risk. In the end, perhaps detective Dunlap recognizes that—when compared with the ears of mechanical detectives—shared and internalized memories are not at all easy to forget. The recording angel can only blot but so much, even when the case does not go to court. And as Cornelia Vismann (2008, 146) observes of office and legal cultures during the early twentieth century, “most files no longer contain any secrets. . . . What is secret is neither that which is screened off by barriers nor that which has been put on file, but that which is off the record.” Perhaps this “off the record” approach to proof in the age of mechanical reproduction is why, as Fankhauser claims during his Franklin Institute speech, human stenographers trump magnetic mechanisms in the courtroom, reducing telegraphones to validation machines.

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