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

Leave a Message

These affordances might be rephrased from the perspective and parlance of a US business operating circa 1906: irrefutable evidence of verbal agreements, the obsolescence of stenographers and associated costs, and increased efficiency through automated messaging and split attention. Indeed, with a machine to hear for them, people could double their labor, listening to a telephone caller in one space while completing additional tasks—like drafting a breach of promise suit—in another. Understood this way, turn-of-the-century communications technologies were not distraction devices. Instead, they increased what people could achieve in a typical day, and they could presumably translate routine sensual labor (e.g., listening) into value-producing activity (e.g., the creation and administration of office records). By extension, businesses could increase the thoroughness and transparency of their file keeping. 

Stearns elaborates on these technological and business innovations by creating an everyday character named Mr. Jones, who has to work on the weekend. “It is a Saturday afternoon in summer; save for himself, the office is wholly deserted” (1906, 412). However, Mr. Jones must depart the office in order run some errands uptown. Knowing important people will probably call him, he sets his new storage device on “ready” and leaves. While he is absent from the office, several messages are left, each no longer than three minutes, at which point the device stops (412). If callers do not complete their message within that time frame—selected solely for the purposes of efficiency, since a two-mile spool of wire could receive up to 17.6 minutes of sound—then they must call back. When he returns to the office, he finds the spool of wire near full. So “Mr. Jones sits back in his chair, starts up the instrument, puts the receivers to his ears and listens to the various voices and messages that have been floating into his office since noon!” (412). Comparable to Smith’s “hypothetical young lady,” he might be multitasking: writing one message and listening to another. Regardless, for reasons explained later in this essay, Stearns’s scenario remains largely a fiction in Technical World Magazine and elsewhere, at least during its time period. As historian David Morton (2000, 134) notes, it was not until the 1980s that many Americans had an answering machine in their businesses or homes. Nevertheless, something like it did exist in 1906, eighty years before Ferris Bueller took the day off and deferred callers until after the beep.

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