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

Disposing of the Evidence

Consider a scene from Constance Dunlap, Woman Detective, the twelfth volume in the Kennedy collection.51 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.52 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.53 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 1912a, 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).54 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).

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?” (1912a, 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.55 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).56 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.

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