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

A Machine to Hear for Them

Here, I am echoing Sterne (2003, 51) in The Audible Past, where he stresses how the history of sound reproduction technologies is very much a history of the human ear as a mechanism, beginning in part with the advent of otology (ear medicine) in the late eighteenth century, when the ear (particularly the tympanum) was treated as a discrete, measurable object of scientific inquiry. Later, many sound reproduction technologies, including the phonograph, were represented as “talking machines.” Yet, following research in otology and related fields, they were first imagined as hearing machines, especially for the deaf. Alexander Graham Bell’s research (subtended by an investment in the eradication of deaf culture) is but one example. Consequently, Sterne argues that “the history of sound reproduction is the history of the transformation of the human body as object of knowledge and practice. Alongside the problematization of sound, the abstraction of auditory perception and its condensation into a tympanic function defines sound-reproduction technologies as we know them today” (50–51).

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