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

Responding to Edison’s Noise

In the history of technologies before and after 1888, a drive toward the abstraction and standardization of both information and perception is certainly nothing novel. However, what makes the case of early magnetic recording unique is that Oberlin Smith bundled that abstraction and standardization with a critique of mechanical noise, which abraded cultured ears as it revealed technical flaws. One such flaw was the friction between a needle and groove caused during the playback of mechanically recorded sound inscribed on tinfoil. As magnetic audio historian Mark H. Clark notes in “The Magnetic Recording of Sound,” Oberlin Smith visited Thomas Edison’s Menlo Park laboratory in early 1878, ten years prior to his publication in Electrical World and just after Edison patented the cylinder phonograph (1999c, 7). 

While examining Edison’s new device, Smith was struck by a scratchy noise generated during playback. It was a noise that mechanical recordings simply could not avoid, and it offended Smith’s ears. As a response, he proposed magnetic recording, where no audible, physical contact would be made between the storage medium (for example, thread) and the playback mechanism (for example, an electromagnet).

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