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 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 (Camras 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 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. 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 being transcribing 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.

Special Occasions

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.

Rise to Relative Popularity

Intellectual Property Issues


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


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.

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.


Audio from a wire recording criticizing President Truman, April 1952