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


At least in writing, one of the first magnetic storage media was thread, on which—in September 1888—Oberlin Smith claimed sound could be recorded. Smith imagined thread as a lightweight and affordable means for quantifying the content of a given message, not to mention the time invested in its communication. For instance, in “Some Possible Forms of Phonograph” (published in Electrical World), he suggests: “The Lord’s Prayer could be written upon a few feet of thread or string, while a young lady receiving a small spool of cotton from her lover would think herself abominably neglected if it was not ‘warranted 200 yards long’” (1888, 116). 

In the case of a ritual communication such as the Lord’s Prayer, only a few feet are required. Meanwhile, the complexity of love and its labors warrants at least two hundred yards. And during the late 1880s, those two hundred yards were guaranteed to all consumers of, say, Clark’s spools of “Our New Thread” crochet or darning cotton. Since the spools were small and tightly wound, the length of wrapped thread was impossible to determine with a naked eye. Consequently, Clark and other thread companies assured buyers that they were in fact getting the two hundred yards they purchased. Understood this way, Smith’s early ideation of audio on thread not only enables a metric for abstracting labor from the messiness of everyday practice (converting the time spent authoring a message into the number of feet on which it is stored). It also demands faith in the medium—a faith that thread would store sounds naturally, authentically, and exactly as they existed prior to their mediation.

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