Wire recording refers to a method of recording audio by magnetizing a very thin steel or stainless steel wire.
The concept of magnetic recording and playback was first published in 1888 by American engineer Oberlin Smith in an article entitled "Some Possible Forms of the Phonograph" in the September 8th edition of The Electrical World (Marvin, 7). In the article, Smith complained of other business ventures that prevented of pursuing his ideas and expressed his wish that others would carry them out (Smith). Ten years later, the wire recorder, or magnetic recorder, was invented by Valdemar Poulsen, a Danish telephone technician. Poulsen began developing the wire recorder as a way for telephone users to leave messages for one another when the person they tried to call was unavailable. He studied the mechanism of the telephone and eventually discovered that sound could be recorded using the telephone microphone. Sound could then be played back using an electromagnet. Poulsen applied for a U.S. patent on December 1, 1898 and named the wire recorder the “telegraphone.”
Poulsen eventually teamed up with Peder O. Pederson, an engineer, to further develop the telegraphone. Not long after, they worked closely with Sren Lemvig Fog, who established Aktieselskabet-Telegrafonen, a Danish corporation formed to speed up the development of the telegraphone in which all three men dedicated their time. When the time came to commercialize their product, they turned to Germany for help and partnered with Mix & Genest, manufacturers of telephone equipment in Germany. With their help, they began to develop machines for the Paris World Exhibition in June of 1900. At the Paris Exhibition, Poulsen and his associates showed off the telegraphone and what it was capable of which piqued the interest of technology writers, who were most interested in its use in relation to the telephone and more generally, to record and play back conversations.
Poulsen and his associates originally saw the telegraphone as a basic extension of the telephone, much like we see answering machines today. However, at that time, Bell Telephone companies would not permit the attachment of private equipment to their phone lines. This obstacle prevented Poulsen and his associates from selling their telegraphones as telephone answering machines. As a result, they were sold as dictating machines. Dictating machines were used to record conversations that needed to be referred to in the future, such as in the courtroom or office meetings.
After the Paris Exhibition, Aktieselskabet-Telegrafonen and Mix & Genest tried to focus on developing a commercialized, mass-produced form of the telegraphone. The two corporations, however, began to disagree on crucial topics. Aktieselskabet-Telegrafonen felt that the telegraphone needed to be further developed into a product that could be used by the public, while Mix & Genest felt that the telegraphone should be sold as soon as possible. Mix & Genest were not willing to fund any further development of the product that would not speed up the manufacturing process. It was not long before the two corporations had to split up. In 1903, Poulsen and Pederson left the development of the telegraphone to Fog and his associates so that they could pursue other inventions. After all of Poulsen’s time and effort into the telegraphone, he never made a profit from it.
After Poulsen's abandonment of the telegraphone, A German man named Herr Stille "worked hard and made great strides" on the technical aspects of wire recording. A fellow German named Louis Blattner brought Stille's machine to England, where it became known as the Blattnerphone. The British Broadcasting Company noticed the Blattnerphone and contracted the Marconi company to manufacture them under the moniker "Marconi-Stille Recorder." When World War II began Britain needed to conserve steel, and wartime broadcasting required better and better recorders, which forced the BBC to move from wire to disc recording.
By March 1903, Fog and his associates had made an agreement with American investors to form the Telegraphone Company of Maine in September 1903, which became the American Telegraphone Company in October 1903. John Lindlay and Charles Fankhauser, started out trying to make the telegraphone more practical for production. Harry S. Sands was then brought on as the head of production, to help the product get put on the market faster. However, by May 1908, American Telegraphone was nearing bankruptcy, and had to allow the company to be taken over by Edwin Rood, the president of Hamilton Watch Company. Although it seemed that Rood was an experienced professional, his management style was what ultimately lead to the decline of the telegraphone. Rood made executive decisions without consulting the rest of the board of American Telegraphone, and applied the same management style he had used in the watch-making industry, which was not appropriate for the development of the telegraphone as a new product on the market. Rood had talent in dealing with customers wanting to purchase watches, but he lacked technical skill needed to sell the telegraphone. (Clark)
Although the technical aspects of wire recording date back to the work of Michael Faraday with electromagnetism in the early 19th century, the medium's development did little to complicate these fundamental principles. G.R. Judge puts the concepts into the easiest terms to understand in his Wire Recording Manual by explaining "hysteresis": "Just as a man, or woman, will assume some characters associated with an environment in which they have lived for a period, so too will some metals assume magnetic properties when permeated by a magnetic field" (10). He goes on to explain that these properties store the data and allow for devices to play them back. While entire manuals and books have been written about the very scientific processes at play in wire recording, society's interaction with the technical details of the machine actually involved a lack of understanding in the science. As seen in the photograph of a certain wire recorder above, the device hides its internal structure. It does not expose where the metal wire meets the recording head or how the microphone is channeled through the recording head and onto the wire. The device hides this seemingly essential element because much of the public's consumption of the medium rested upon the mysterious and even magical properties of the wire recorder. Many wire recorder demonstrations were reported in historical newspaper articles simply because the public was amused by the simplicity of the device: a person speaks into one part and almost immediately after, the recorded data is played back. Because this was some of the first occurrences of data storage being shown to an unsuspecting public, the manufacturers of the devices did not display the "rube goldberg" machines inside because the end product was much more interesting than the science. That is, people would have been much less impressed if they had completely understood the way the machine worked. And so in studying the "moment of crisis" of the wire recorder, we can suffice it to explain the science of the medium simply. The metal wire was magnetized to retain certain properties, which in effect stored data and could be used for the many purposes described below.
Although the wire recording technology is often cited synonymously with the telegraphone, it is important to note that the telegraphone is only one of the ways that the technology was harnessed, albeit the most well-known one. One of the greatest technological merits of wire recording in general was its broad applications. While almost all of the technology's uses never truly took root, the storage of audio data nevertheless ranged from the personal to the professional.
As noted earlier, the advent of the wire recording technology was a means of profit; wire recording was initially thought to be the way to record telephone messages when a call was not answered (Clark). The machine that was able to accomplish this was called the telegraphone. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, the telegraphone is "an electromagnetic phonograph capable of registering human speech by the alternating magnetization of a wire." At its most efficient stage, it "recorded continuously for 30 minutes on a length of steel piano-wire moving at a speed of 84 inches (213 cm) per second" ("Poulsen, Valdemar").
Dictation was the most popular use for wire recording and it accounts for much of recorded data that still exists today (Moscoso Interview). The ability to erase and re-record was what made wire recording so convenient for dictation. There were many machines made specifically for dictation, but most of them used metal in the form of tape or discs instead of wire. By the time dictation machines were being designed and built with features like instant playback and foot pedal controls, companies had already realized the advantages of using tape and discs over wire recording, since they are smaller and more easily managed (Camras 430-431). But nonetheless, companies did use wire for recording their meetings and often secretaries would simply insert the spools of wire into a playback device to transcribe the spoken word into written word.
World War I
C. Dexter Rood, the colorful industrialist who purchased the American Telegraphone Company in 1908, involved the company in a number of questionable deals, some of which led to civil and criminal lawsuits. During World War I (1914-1918), he was accused of discouraging the sale of telegraphones to American military and agencies and of sending them defective devices. At the same time, he sold working machines freely to German interests. The Germans installed telegraphones in submarines and used them to code messages transmitted to receiver stations on land by means of a superpower wireless transmitter in Sayville, Long Island (Camras 8).
Science & Medicine
As soon Einstein began his groundbreaking work regarding relativity and quantum physics in the beginning of the 20th century, physicists realized the necessity for a large-scale improvements to the tools they used to conduct experiments. Specifically, when Heisenberg introduced his Uncertainty Principle in 1925, they needed a way to detect two distinct particles simultaneously using one machine to record certain physical properties. The scientific community devised several ways of doing this, beginning about the same time that Oberlin Smith theoretically envisioned the wire recorder with Thomas Young's famous double-slit experiment. But the medical community began incorporating principles of simultaneous particle tracing a little bit later and they cleverly used the wire recorder to do so. In 1950, William B. Miller, Jr. published a paper in the journal Science entitled "Use of a Wire Recorder for Recording Geiger-Müller Pulses." In it, Miller states that the medical research community needed a way to study two radioisotopes simultaneously (Geiger-Müller pulses). According to Miller, "the simplest and most inexpensive method of solving this problem [was] through the use of the commercial wire recorder" (626). Put simply, the output of the power supply running from the Geiger-Müller tube in the apparatus can be fed to the low gain input of any commercially available wire recorder (627). The interesting contextual situation in this usage of the wire recorder is that the very scientific discoveries that gave rise to wire recording technology (i.e. electromagnetism) was being harnessed to help test and apply new scientific models that were initially discovered by studying electromagnetism in the first place.
Despite the wire recorder's failure to commercialize (discussed above), it still made notable appearances in everyday life as a medium for documenting important milestones and special events. There is little tangible evidence today for the in-home use of the wire recorder, but in the late 1940s there were numerous newspaper articles about its use. For example, on July 6th, 1947, the Chicago Daily Tribune published a story with the heading "80 Friends Make Wire Recording at 50th Wedding Fete." According to the article, Mr. and Mrs. George Lang and their guests were recorded on the device at their 50th wedding anniversary celebration. The recording was presented to them as a gift. Also in the Chicago Daily Tribune in the month of July, 1947, a heading read "Wire Recording of Methodist Baptism Made." Five year-old James O. G. Stingily's baptism at St. Paul's Methodist Church was recorded, beginning with the processional hymn, "All Hail the Power of Jesus' Name." Two years prior, the Chicago Daily Tribune reported that the "Austin Optimist club will witness a demonstration of the wire recorder at a luncheon Tuesday in Austin Y.M.C.A." These examples capture the excitement of the time about being able to record and therefore immortalize, in a way, life's important occurrences. It's almost impossible for those of us who were born and raised in the late 20th century to imagine that this was the beginning of the society that we know so well to constantly be recording us.
American Political Documentation
The wire recorder was used, for the first time in American history, to record the entire Republican National Convention in 1944 held in Chicago, IL. Although some states had adopted primary election processes, most of them decided the allocation of their share of delegates at the party conventions. Unlike the conventions of today, the Republican National Convention in 1944 was hot with active political decisions. Chicago radio station and wire recorder manufacturer WGN recorded all of the convention's happenings, including then California Governor Earl Warren's announcement that he would not accept the Vice Presidency. The sound clip was made available to radio stations via wire recording and was broadcast to the general public ("Wire Recorder Proves Success at Convention"). This began the long and complicated history of the relationship between government and the media. It gave the media more power to document, track, and challenge political discourse by closely following leaders, therefore strengthening its role as the "fourth branch of the government." But it is also interesting to note that even at the time, people were well-aware that the audio documentation of political events could help to preserve politics or destroy it. The Chicago Daily Tribune article covering the wire recorder's role at the convention states, "The wire recordings are permanent but they can be instantly erased," eerily foreshadowing large-scale government cover ups that would later take place, like the Watergate Scandal. The wire recordings became especially important for politics because they offered a tangible means to immortalize the statements of public leaders, much more than writings or speeches could.
Of all the various uses for the wire recording, its role in library services is particularly interesting. When wire recording came to be used widely enough for libraries to be interested in acquiring it for their storage, they needed to make several changes in their operations to accommodate it. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, libraries had to purchase machines to read and play the wire recording and the machines had to be simple enough to be operable by the public. Not surprisingly, this meant that the library had to hire specialists to handle the recording. These employees had to be trained in the treatment of the media to "safeguard their content from accidental erasure." And since wire recording "[does] not readily yield information about [its] contents," they "require particular care in labeling and indexing as well as equipment and programming to permit retrieval" ("Library"). Not only does this touch upon on idea that information that could be easily relied upon to reference can actually be destroyed quite simply, it also marks the beginning of libraries' expansion into new media forms. Indeed, these early specialists are the intellectual ancestors of the modern library preservationists who specialize in storing media. And since this means libraries began adapting to the new technologies, it also means that they started archiving those technologies that died. In a sense, this is an important milestone for the ways that media archaeology has become its own academic field.
Evidence & The Courts
The Federal Rules of Evidence are what governs the procedure of trials in the American judicial system. The rules are extremely broad in their application so that arguments about courtroom procedure can take place by interpreting these rules in different ways. A good portion of the rules describe the use of physical evidence in trial (i.e., not the examinations of witnesses, but the introduction of documents). The rules seek to maintain several underlying principles that govern the use of evidence in trial, which can often apply to several technological forms. For example, regardless of whether a type of evidence is on paper or on a wire recording, the Court must make sure that the document is what it is purported to be. With the advent of wire recording, court evidence became more and more difficult to introduce because of the nature of the medium. Since the data is gathered and recorded outside of the courtroom and because our judicial system acts of the fundamental principle that opposing parties should have an equal opportunity to examine the evidence, wire recording posed several problems. Attorneys needed a way to verify that the recording was not fabricated or rehearsed. As Nicole de Sario writes in her article, "Merging Technology with Justice," this "[left] the future treatment of courtroom technology largely to the discretion of the judge" (1). But these obstacles stand in stark contrast to the public interest in using the medium in courtrooms. But the sociological effects of the wire recording were that, for the first time, we could objectively record spontaneous happenings and actions at any point in time. This means that if a confession is made outisde of a courtroom, it could potentially be used to bring criminals to justice since they are held to a higher standard of potentially adverse evidence during their trial. Obviously, this raises privacy concerns, but it doesn't mean that people became less interested in using the wire recording to "catch" a culprit. In fact, there is an argument to be made that the very fascination of the public with the idea that truth can be recorded objectively and spontaneously has led to the "surveillance society" and obsession with an almost voyeuristic culture we find today. Even though the wire recording is not well documented within court proceedings because the standard to prove its authenticity is very high, it still could have very possibly changed the societal attitudes about justice and truth.
Intellectual Property Issues
Wire recording is part of the first series of technological advancements to truly test the intellectual property system of the United States and other nations. Even the phrase "intellectual property" points to its contradictions: ideas and thoughts cannot necessarily be "property" because they are intangible and therefore incapable of being owned, but they do arise within the mind of an individual and can give rise to tangible, profitable assets. Intellectual property, as is outlined in our Constitution, is protected with certain limits and parameters to ensure a balance. On one hand, a person has the right to profit from, for example, a song or book. But on the other hand, this right cannot be exclusive forever because that would mean people would be able to claim ownership of ideas that many people have come up with. The balance ensures that an artist can make money off his/her song, but that the public ultimately has the right to use and learn from it when it falls into the "public" domain. Now, for each type of intellectual property (copyrights, patents, trademarks, and trade secrets), there are different ways of maintaining this balance. But since wire recording was a way to store audio data, we are mainly concerned with copyrights (i.e., the exclusive right of an artist to copy, reproduce, or distribute his/her work, which is expressed in a tangible means, for a limited time). Wire recording is so important to copyright issues because it was the first time that a song, lecture, or performance could be encoded into a tangible means. Consider this situation: a man goes to hear a concert with his rather clunky wire recorder. He discreetly sets up his device to record the concert. Once he has it recorded, he copies the concert and sells the wire recording. The man does not have the right to copy and distribute the work because he does not own the copyrights, and yet the technology has allowed him to unknowingly violate the artist's rights and has also devalued the artist's market value (i.e., if the artist then went to try to sell a copy of the song himself, people would be less likely to buy it because the man has already sold it to them). Since the time of the wire recording, technological advances have given way to much more complicated issues, perhaps culminating in the peer-to-peer file sharing and illegal downloading issues of today. As today's Courts and legislatures struggle to find a way to reconcile the law with the technology, we can plainly see that the very beginning of these issues was with media like the wire recording.
Why is it that the telegraphone and wire recording in general did not development into a profitable business? Could it be the inherent technical problems of the twisting wire, the “Rube Goldberg like insides,” the prohibitively expensive price , or just a general lack of popular interest or purpose in recording sound? The technical problems were well documented and lamented about, however subsequent patents and modifications were invented to combat such defects, as previously noted. The complex electronics (for the time) were unknown to the general public, only engineers and hobby enthusiasts knew how to fix one if the wire recorder ever malfunctioned. Even the price, at $149.50 in 1948 ($1239.88 adjusted for inflation in 2006) would guarantee that only the extremely wealthy would have bought a wire recorder. From accounts of using the wire recorder for medical dictation, it becomes apparent that doctors, notorious for being wealthy – bought wire recorders. Even if these clearly drastic factors had not existed, that is, assuming that wire recorders worked flawlessly, enjoyed immense popular demand, and their price was within reach of the average middle class citizen, there is still an important reason for the death of the wire recorder, and it has to do with Thomas Edison.
A 1923 article illuminates the cold hard facts of business in an age of mass standardization. There are numerous hurdles for a machine such as the telegraphone to overcome to gain any kind of critical mass. For starters, the engineers in large corporate laboratories had probably conceived of, tested, and rejected the concept already. Even if they hadn’t, there was still the problem of the current infrastructure in place that would have to be retrofitted to accommodate the wire recorder. Every phone mouthpiece would have had to been wired to the wire recorder. This becomes impossible because of the standardization of the industrial processes used to manufacture every component of the telephone communication network. As if this wasn’t enough, the large corporations have ample money and lawyers on retainer to fiscally and legally stamp out any competition. Therefore, not only was the concept of wire recording ill-fated because of inherent flaws, but also because of the cultural context and powerful capitalist economy of the time period.
Historical precursors and futuristic musings
How is a Danish telephone company employee related to Richard Nixon and Watergate?
What is the value of a live Woody Guthrie performance? The only surviving live recording of Woody Guthrie was recorded on a wire recorder, and after being transferred to modern media, remixed, and remastered, won a 2008 Grammy award, __ years after the performance itself.
Can wire recording be attributed to our current obsession with endlessly documenting ourselves without specific purpose?
How did wire recording influence politics, now that an aural artifact could be broadcasted to the masses for political propaganda?
Could the origin of the phrase "wire tap" have come from the wire recorder? Meaning that the wire refers not to the phone wire being monitered, but instead to the medium used to record the phone conversation? A diagram shows a technical drawing for use in telephone handsets to record telephone conversations.
"80 Friends Make Wire Recording at 50th Wedding Fete." Chicago Daily Tribune. 6 Jul. 1947.
Camras, Marvin. Magnetic Recording Handbook. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1988.
Clark, Mark and Henry Nielsen. "Crossed wires and missing connections: Valdemar Poulsen, The American Telegraphone Company, and the failure to commercialize magnetic recording." Business History Review 69 (1995): 1-41.
de Sario, Nicole J. "Merging Technology with Justice: How Electronic Courtrooms Shape Evidentiary Concerns." Cleveland State University Law Review. 2002-2003.
Judge, G.R. Wire Recording Manual. Bernards Radio Manuals No. 88. London: Bernards Publishers, 1950.
Kaempffert, Waldemar. "Invention by Wholesale." Forum (1886-1930); Nov 1923; Vol LXX, No. 5; APS Online. pg 216.
Miller Jr., William B. "Use of a Wire Recorder for Recording Geiger-Müller Pulses." pp. 626-627. Science vol. 111. 9 June 1950.
Moscoso, Alice and Ben Moskowitz. Personal Interview. 1 Oct. 2008.
"Poulsen, Valdemar." The Encyclopedia Britannica. Online Edition. 2008
Smith, Oberlin. "Some Possible Forms of the Phonograph." The Electrical World. 8 Sept. 1888.
Stanford University. (July 28,2008). Wire Players. Message posted to http://arsc-aaa.invisionzone.com/forums/index.php.
"Wire Recorder Proves Success at Convention." Chicago Daily Tribune. 9 Jul. 1944.
"Wire Recording of Methodist Baptism Made." Chicago Daily Tribune. 13 Jul. 1947.