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

A Rewritable Medium

In fact, the answering machine’s predecessor existed as early as 1898. Although there is no evidence that he read Oberlin Smith’s work, that year an engineer by the name of Valdemar Poulsen experimented with storing voices on piano wire. These experiments initially occurred in his laboratory at the Copenhagen Telephone Company in Denmark. According to Marvin Camras (1985, 1), a historian and practitioner of magnetic recording, Poulsen would stretch magnetic wire across the diagonal width of a room, from the top corner to its opposite bottom corner. To that wire, he would attach a trolley, which carried an electromagnet, battery, and telephone transmitter. As the trolley rolled down the wire, he would run alongside it, shouting into the transmitter. This process would then be repeated, but with a receiver instead of a transmitter. As the trolley rolled down the wire again, Poulsen would have a friend listen to the playback through an earpiece. The playback could be repeated (ostensibly without deterioration in audio quality), with people taking turns to individually listen. Better yet, they could then witness Poulsen wiping the record clean with a strong magnet, only to rerecord on the same medium (1).

Also mentioned in Smith’s early writings, this notion of erasing and rerecording cannot be underemphasized in the histories of magnetic storage. When compared with other, seemingly less-reusable options (such as shellac discs and wax cylinders) on the market, piano wire became an appealing alternative. It was a rewritable medium, and being able to rewrite a record ironically implied increased odds for perfection. A second take (or an edit) gave people a sense of agency, an opportunity to finally capture (but actually reconstruct or make) the essence of a moment heretofore undocumented. And although piano wire is brittle, easy to twist and tangle, and subject to severe fluctuation during playback (especially if hand- or pedal-cranked), its magnetic character was laden with a progressivist bent toward a Hegelian promise of purely synthesized sound and immediate recording. Because of this bent, many of the medium’s material limitations (e.g., brittleness and fluctuation)—not to mention many significant aspects of the impression and playback processes—were often overlooked in order to foreground advancements in science, industry, and everyday office life.

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