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

Before the Hard Drive

All of this faith and speculation was possible without a standardized device. No doubt, the case of the telegraphone is all the more curious because fiction related to it circulated more than the physical object itself. Despite the 1900 Paris Exhibition gold medal, exhaustive research by Poulsen’s team, and endorsements from a number of known scientists and engineers in related fields, the telegraphone never achieved a default state—say, a reliable medium with a known storage capacity and consistent playback—intended for a specific group of ideal users (e.g., office workers, police, or detectives). Likely for this reason, as well as its lack of commercial success, it is rarely mentioned in media or literary studies. Still, as this essay shows, the telegraphone did gain some traction, offering us a prehistory for its now ubiquitous successor—the hard drive—and attendant medial ideologies anchored in the immediate transubstantiation of magnetic impressions into seemingly immaterial, data-driven expressions. To be sure, neither the details of this prehistory nor the objects and ideologies associated with them are reducible to technical matters alone. Again, people learned to at once ignore, trust, and desire magnetic recording—to make magnetic records, not just give or take them.

And, as the texts referenced throughout this essay suggest, writings related to the telegraphone are incredibly pedagogical in character, regardless of genre. One obvious reason for this pedagogical tenor is that not many consumers had access to the telegraphone. Another reason is that the device involved a magnetization process unfamiliar to most audiences. And yet another is that, quite early on, numerous people wanted to exhibit expertise in an emerging field, particularly its technical language. For Reeve and Fankhauser, didactic displays not only informed audiences; they also publicly performed authority, something key to the persona of a professor, the reputation of a detective, the success of an innovator, or the pitch of a business agent. As Carolyn Marvin (1985, 49) argues, “control of technical language was a means for experts to establish themselves as arbiters of the domain of technological reality and, from that strength, to seize the larger domain of social reality.” Equal to a professional education acquired through a setting like the Franklin Institute was a demonstrable knowledge of how to speak technically, how to use language to model a specific community of practice (49).

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