[TELECOM Digest Editor's Note: Another reprint, this time by Don Kimberlin
writing to us in July, 1999. PAT]
Jurassic Telecommunications, Part I
This is the first in a series about the beginnings of what we today so
casually take as Telecommunications. Reaching back into those late
Victorian and Edwardian era times before the world had electronics,
the first developers were forced to accomplish their feats with
unwieldy, often heavily mechanical methods one could as easily credit
to Jules Verne. While a large part of these methods have become
obsolete, it is amazing to consider what those first contributors to
telecommunications did accomplish. At the same time, seeing their
methods reveals some delightfully simple ways of understanding how the
patchwork of today's technology operates and how to manage it.
Valdemar Poulsen - The Doctor Frankenstein of Telecommunications?
Poulsen is perhaps best known for his other major contribution to the
art of telecommunications, a literal fire-breathing monster that
functioned as a radio transmitter. That story, however, stands quite
apart from one that more closely parallels Mary Shelly's tragic hero.
If the immortality we hope for really exists, then it follows there is
likely a collegium of archangels or a pantheon of gods of man's higher
accomplishments. Valdemar Poulsen rightly deserves a place in such a
group for his contributions to man's shrinking of time and space; to
man's increase of social intercourse, and thus, one would hope, the
furtherance of peace and harmony in the world today.
However, one of Poulsen's major contributions has had its dark sides
as well as its benefits.
The first notion of recording sound by magnetic means seems to have
been stimulated rather early in Thomas Edison's spew of development
Then-prominent American mechanical engineer Oberlin Smith, after a
visit to Edison's Menlo Park, NJ laboratory, filed an 1878 patent
caveat that was never followed up. It described the notion of
recording electrical signals produced by a telephone onto a steel
While investigating ways in which speech might be recorded, Edison;s
assistant Sumner Tainter noted on March 20, 1881; "A fountain-pen is
attached to a diaphragm so as to be vibrated in a plane parallel to
the axis of a cylinder. The ink used in this pen to contain iron in a
finely divided state, and the pen caused to trace a spiral line round
the cylinder as it is turned. The cylinder to be covered with a sheet
of paper upon which the record is made." (1)
It's interesting that had the Edison team followed this route and
succeeded, the world may have had postally mailable recordings on
paper sheets a hundred years ago. Rather, however, developments
focused on purely mechanical means to record and play back sound. Not
yet having any of the electronics necessary to amplify the weak
magnetic signals or to prepare the magnetic medium by biasing it,
mechanical recording certainly would have been seen as the only
practical method of the era. From the Edison notebooks, it seems that
idea lay fallow for almost two decades.
Oberlin Smith decided in 1888 that he would not pursue his idea. He
"donated" it to the public by publishing his ideas about magnetic
recording in the journal Electrical World. (2) This publication may
have caught the interest of Poulsen, who after all, had attended the
university at which earlier Danish physicist Hans Oersted made the
connection between electricity and magnetism in 1820. By 1893, then
24- year-old Poulsen was working for the Copenhagen Telephone Company.
Poulsen attacked a point about magnetic recording that Edison had not
addressed -- the matter of how to play back a magnetically recorded
message. He found that, indeed, Faraday's principle of magnetic
induction would operate to make a magnetic recording
playable. Poulsen's first demonstration device was simply a steel
chisel edge along which he moved a small pickup coil. He sidestepped a
suggestion by Smith of using cotton thread impregnated with iron
powder, advancing directly to a wire suspended across a room. He
mounted the record/pickup coil on a moving trolley.
To achieve a compact and portable device for his patent application,
Poulsen had by 1898 formed the wire into a drum-like vertical
coil. This was rotated with a crank to cause the wire to pass under a
fixed record/pickup coil assembly, as shown here. (3)
Poulsen's earliest patent papers showed he was aware that tape was a
practical option to wire. It was not until later designers attempted
to store steel wire on reels that wire twisting became an irritating
source of high audio frequency loss. That change was not to ensue
until around 1928, when Germans working for AEG and BASF addressed the
Edisonian notion of applying iron power to a paper (by now paper tape)
backing. This created the Magnetophon tape recorders used in German
broadcasting until their discovery by American Jack Mullin at the end
But, back to Poulsen and his first development. At the outset, his
Telegraphone was intended to store either analog speech or digital
Morse telegraph signals. Poulsen's original Danish patent application
indicated his Telegraphone was intended for use to answer unattended
telephone lines and record messages for later playback.
Thus, we see that Valdemar Poulsen's first plan for his development
was to provide Copenhagen Telephone Company with central office based
voice mail, which of course, has a parallel in the telephone answering
machine and other forms of voice mail we now encounter daily. Much is
made by persons in the recording industry of Poulsen inventing
magnetic recording, but little or nothing is said of the often
frustrating other outcome of his work!
It would appear, however, that the world little appreciated Poulsen's
breakthrough at the outset. He took it to the Paris Exposition of
1900, there paralleling a promotional device used by Alexander Graham
Bell a quarter-century earlier. Just as Bell managed to get the
Emperor of Brazil to exclaim interestedly that a telephone worked (in
Philadelphia in 1878), Poulsen snagged Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria
into a demonstration of recorded voice on the Telegraphone. Based on
that royal attention, the Telegraphone was described in glowing terms
by the technical and scientific press as superior to the phonograph
and a great advance in physics as well. It won Poulsen a gold medal,
but not business success.
Poulsen obtained patents on his Telegraphone in a number of nations,
and even founded an American Telegraphone Company in 1903, with a
manufacturing plant in Wheeling, West Virginia. Efforts to market the
Telegraphone as a business office dictation machine met with little
success, but a number of Telegraphones were marketed to railroads
through Western Union Telegraph as recording devices for Morse
telegraph messages. Correspondence in the Lemuelson Collection of
Western Union at the Smithsonian Institution attests to use of
Telegraphones on the P. and R. railroad, the Northern Pacific
railroad, the L. and N. and the D. and H. railroads.
One can surmise the Telegraphone drew AT&T's attention, as a version
was offered that could answer an unattended telephone - even in 1903!
American Telegraphone moved to Springfield, Massachusetts in 1910,
then went into bankruptcy receivership in 1918, never to emerge; only
to finally close in 1944 following Poulsen's 1942 death.
Other interests, however, benefited and prevailed from Poulsen's
original concepts, even during his firm's bankruptcy. Not the least
was AT&T, which for reasons not completely published, began delving
into magnetic recording in 1930. Bell Telephone Laboratories initiated
a major research effort in magnetic tape recording under the direction
of Clarence N. Hickman. By 1931, prototypes designs were made for a
steel tape telephone answering machine, a central-office message
announcer, an endless loop voice-training machine, and a portable,
reel-to-reel recorder for general purpose sound recording. None were
said to enter production except for the voice trainer, which failed in
the marketplace. AT&T's official policy on telephone recording devices
was that they would not be allowed on public telephone lines. (4)
The steel tape ramification of magnetic recording seems to have been
of particular interest to AT&T. Although their interest in magnetic
recording was declared not an AT&T business objective, I personally
saw steel tape playback units used in AT&T's overseas radio station
for Miami at Fort Lauderdale, Florida. In that use, vertical steel
tapes ran in a glass-enclosed cabinet about 6 feet high over flat
brass rollers to endlessly play back the message heard by so many on
HF radio over the years, This is a test transmission from a station of
The American Telephone and Telegraph Company. This station is located
near Miami, Florida.
Similar messages emanated from plants near New York and San Francisco
for decades. ostensibly from those Telegraphone-like steel
tapes. Obviously, by the 1960's, the later developments by Armour
(since Marvin Camras' work in 1939), Brush and Ampex interests were
mushrooming so as to overshadow any remembrance of the start Poulsen
gave to the recording art.
Along the way, however, there was a heinous incident in which
Poulsen's conception figured. At the Telefunken radio long wave radio
stations built around 1910 at Tuckerton, New Jersey and Sayville, New
York, Telegraphones were found useful for first recording Morse radio
messages at normal speed, then transmitting them at high speed on the
radio link so as to gain throughput on their expensive, gargantuan
international radio links to Germany.
It just so happened that by 1915 Telegraphone-originated high speed
transmissions raised the curiosity of radio experimenter Charles Adgar
in New Jersey when WW1 was still a European war. Adgar, when one day
playing back recordings of the US - German link, had the spring wind
down on his Edison machine. Messages from Sayville became
readable. One of them was a copy of the infamous 'Zimmerman letter',
in which the German Foreign Minister encouraged Mexico to attack the
United States, to divert attention from the European war. The final
straw was the message on May 7, 1915 telling German submarine U-39 to
'get Lucy', ordering the sinking of the passenger ship Lusitania.
On intercepting that message, the US Navy immediately seized the Sayville
and Tuckerton plants of Telefunken, ultimately expropriating them after the
war. Finally, when GE and Westinghouse joint ventured the Radio Corporation
of America, the new RCA was given them as part of reparations for the war.
Poulsen, who obviously knew of his machine's involvement in that action, may
indeed have felt like our tragic hero, Doctor Frankenstein.
Want to know more? Here are some references and websites with related
'Some possible forms of phonograph' by Oberlin Smith, The Electrical World,
September 8th 1888.
Danish Patent 1,260, Valdemar Poulsen, 1898.
[TELECOM Digest Editor's Note: (in 1999) If you were reading this
Digest several years ago, you will recall that Donald Kimberlin was a
very frequent contributor; then he just sort of dropped out of
sight. I hope that the above means we are going to be hearing from him
again on a regular basis. Of course his article above will receive
permanent placement in the Telecom Archives at
http://telecom-digest.org/archives/history very shortly. Welcome back,