Wire Recording

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Wire recording refers to a method of recording audio by magnetizing a very thin steel or stainless steel wire.

An ad for the Webster 80 Wire Recording and Playback device in a 1948 Montgomery Ward catalog


The wire recorder, or magnetic recorder, was invented in 1898 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 1900 Paris Exhibition, Poulsen and his associates showed off the telegraphone and what it was capable of through demonstrations and examples. The telegraphone gained most of its publicity from the Paris Exhibition, and technology writers were most interested in its use in relation to the telephone. The recording and playback or conversations and messages was an area of interest and curiosity at the Exhibition. 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. 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 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. The uses for storage of audio data range from the personal to the professional.


Dictation was the most popular use for wire recording (Moscoso Interview).

World War I


Special Occasions

Rise to Relative Popularity


How is a Danish telephone company employee related to Richard Nixon and Watergate? What is the value of a live Woody Guthrie performance? 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 propganda?


Notable Uses in Popular Culture


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.

Moscoso, Alice and Ben Moskowitz. Personal Interview. 1 Oct. 2008.


Audio from a wire recording criticizing President Truman, April 1952