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

Mystifying the Technical Particulars

Consider the 1851 Crystal Palace Exposition in London, the ephemeral lavishness of which fascinated Walter Benjamin, namely due to correlations between such lavishness and free trade. There are also Thomas Edison’s demonstrations of electric light at the 1881 Paris Exhibition and the phonograph at the 1889 Paris Centennial of the French Revolution. The list goes on, and one persuasive interpretation of these demonstrations is that they foster myths of the lone inventor, often a textbook hero of some entrepreneurial class in US culture. Such myths reduce a set of complex activities (e.g., the labors of production, research, and advertising) to a single product borne by a genius scientist or engineer. They also bolster bootstrap narratives of upward mobility not unlike a Horatio Alger story. Moreover, the mystification of a technology enables what Matthew Kirschenbaum (2008) calls a “medial ideology,” or mass attention to the formal qualities of a given medium at the expense of a technology’s material particulars. In the case of the telegraphone, the aesthetic appeal of magnetic wire’s perfect record overshadowed the physical limitations of the technology’s hardware and the labor involved in creating it. In many ways, the telegraphone was vaporware at the turn of the century.

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