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

Faith in the Device

As one may guess, none of Stearns’s or Fankhauser’s positivist fantasies was fulfilled through the telegraphone. One common explanation is that both Smith’s and Poulsen’s ideas were too far ahead of their time. For instance, Clark and Nielsen (1999, 21) point out that “no practical electronic amplifier existed at the time (the vacuum tube was still some years away).” Indeed, electronic amplification was not available until roughly a decade after the 1900 Paris Exhibition, meaning the recording and playback of telegraphonic sound was extremely weak. Camras adds: “If only the telegraphone had given loud, clear, reliable sound, it would have met with public acceptance. But the reproduction was weak and spotty” (1985, 6, emphasis added). Without an earpiece, people could not hear the sounds played back by the machine. And even if they could, it would not have been easily integrated into existing telephone networks. That is, in today’s parlance, the telegraphone was not built with interoperability in mind. It would not scale. Not only did it lack an amplification device; its parts and associated labor were cost prohibitive. Indeed, the chimerical mystifications of a perfect record eclipsed what could actually be accomplished technologically, and conjectures about the telegraphone’s social implications more or less determined how its material particulars were perceived and communicated. Consumers were supposed to simply have faith that the device could eventually achieve what Stearns, Fankhauser, and other investors claimed it would do, and appeals to natural, authentic, and noise-free records did not hurt their cause.

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