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

Prehistory for Today’s Magnetic Media

Still, the once-new device helps us better understand how people initially learned to simultaneously ignore, trust, and desire magnetic storage—to examine how faith in magnetic recording emerged between the 1870s and 1910s, well before now-ubiquitous hard drives (not to mention seemingly unlimited cloud storage). Put this way, the story of a failed sound machine offerTs a prehistory for contemporary computing, invested as it often is in the automagical transubstantiation of magnetic impressions (on platters) into data expressions (on screens and through speakers).

This prehistory matters because it not only contextualizes contemporary computing and today’s magnetic media through mechanical age audio cultures. It also sparks some speculation about what artifacts are not at hand, in the archive, or on file—about what does not ultimately go into storage. If, during the development of early magnetic technologies and media, the perfect record would never lie and would never be written, then we must ask how such a record was actively constructed, through what material procedures of impression and playback, and in what relation to transforming notions of proof, evidence, perception, and memory. To be clear, then, this prehistory is an account of making records, not giving or taking them.

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