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

Remediating the Telephone

Most of those advancements were anchored in remediating the telephone with the phonograph cylinder or gramophone disk. Since Poulsen believed magnetic recording’s most important use was storing telephone messages, he directed his research toward what he called the telegraphone (meaning “to write voice at a distance”). In “The Telegraphone,” Clark and Henry Nielsen (1995, 15) suggest Poulsen “was frustrated by the inability of telephone users to leave a message when the party they called was not at home.” In 1898, Poulsen patented the telegraphone in Denmark, following with applications elsewhere, including one filed in the United States on July 8, 1899, granted on May 29, 1906, and titled, “Apparatus for Effecting the Storing Up of Speech or Signals.” There, his description of the magnetic recording process is incredibly similar to what Smith articulates in “Some Possible Forms of Phonograph.” In the patent, Poulsen makes a sum total of forty-three enumerated claims. All of them somehow relate to receiving, recording, storing, or reproducing speech, sounds, signals, and electrical impulses. Also, three of the final four claims seek to patent “a phonogram or sound-record . . . having impressed therein or thereupon magnetic conditions” (1906, 7). Poulsen suggests the phonogram or sound-record could be composed of steel and assume the form of a wire or strip. Importantly, the warrant motivating all of these claims is a critique of the mechanical phonograph:

As is well known, in the usual phonographs the vibrations of air transmitted to a membrane are caused, by means of suitable mechanical parts, to make indentations in a receptive body, which indentations can cause a membrane to repeat the said vibrations by suitable mechanical means. Mechanical alterations of such bodies, however, give rise to disturbing noises, which apart from the expense of such apparatus is one of the principal reasons why the phonograph has not come more extensively into use. (1906, 1)

Indeed, the affinities with Smith’s article (published just eleven years earlier) are uncanny. And they revolve around the aesthetics of recording and playback—around the “disturbing noises” problem. Nonetheless, speculating about how Smith influenced Poulsen, or offering an origin story for magnetic recording, is more than a futile exercise; it also distracts from the traction Poulsen’s telegraphone gained in various communities of practice, where the “weird instrument” described by Stearns in a 1906 issue of Technical World Magazine quickly became a spectacle.

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