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

Developing the Telegraphone's Image

Among all of Reeve’s scientific detective stories published in the 1910s, this scene from Dunlap is one of several anchored in the telegraphone. Given the lack of stylistic and narrative variability in his fiction, the scenes tend to resonate with (or even mimic) each other, all of them involving a set of primary elements imbricating the specifications of magnetic media with listening and memory: the telegraphone as an objective eavesdropper (or a neutral instrument), the threat of magnetic recording to privacy, the promise of magnetic recording in the search for truth and rationality, and the acquisition of trace evidence, which exists noise-free through indexical relationships with people’s voices and their furtive machinations. “I learned their methods,” Dunlap declares (1912a, 121). “There were no foreign noises in the machine,” Jameson observes (1914, 202). “‘I am going to apply . . . the same sort of methods by which you trace out the presence of a chemical,” Kennedy asserts (Reeve 1912b, 3). Scholars may read these scenes solely as representations of the telegraphone on the page—how the device is depicted in fiction, how that depiction differs from the actual device, and so on. However, such interpretations risk ignoring how Reeve’s scientific detective tales historically functioned within a larger constellation of strategies aimed at creating and fostering popular perceptions across socially disparate communities of practice. That said, a Kennedy or Dunlap story resonates with magazines like Electrical World, speeches at the Franklin Institute, the everyday life of Mr. Jones, and even US patent applications precisely because early magnetic recording was not developed in isolation. It was not reserved for the fields of science and engineering alone, and—returning for a moment to Kirschenbaum’s notion of a medial ideology—fiction was a way that people learned about magnetic recording and how to perceive (with) it.

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