This is the Jurassic Radio Section of
The Broadcast Archive
Barry Mishkind - The Eclectic Engineer
Telecommunications, Part I
By Don Kimberlin
This is the first in a series about the
beginnings of what we today so casually refer to 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 todayís 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 Shellyís 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 manís higher accomplishments. Valdemar Poulsen rightly deserves a place in
such a group for his contributions to manís shrinking of time and space; to
manís increase of social intercourse, and thus, one would hope, the
furtherance of peace and harmony in the world today.
However, one of Poulsenís 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 Edisonís spew of
development around 1880.
Then-prominent American mechanical engineer
Oberlin Smith, after a visit to Edisonís Menlo Park, NJ laboratory, filed an
1878 patent caveat that he never followed up. It described the notion of
recording electrical signals produced by a telephone onto a steel wire.
While investigating ways in which speech might
be recorded, Edisonís 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)
Itís 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 magneticsignals 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, Faradayís principle of
magnetic induction would operate to make a magnetic recording playable. Poulsenís
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 powder 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 of WW2.
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. Poulsenís 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 Poulsenís 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! Did Poulsen give the world a boon or a bane?
It would appear that the world little
appreciated Poulsenís 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&Tís 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 Poulsenís 1942 death.
Other interests, however, benefited and
prevailed from Poulsenís original concepts, even during his firmís
bankruptcy. Not the least was AT&T, which 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&Tís 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 1960ís,
the later developments of Armour (since Marvin Camrasí 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, there was a heinous incident in
which Poulsenís 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
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, let the spring wind down on his
Edison machine. Messages from Sayville became readable. The inexperienced United
States of America hardly knew what to do about a German-owned radio station
sending the message on May 7, 1915 telling German submarine U-39 to "get
Lucy," ordering the sinking of the passenger ship Lusitania. The U.S. Navy
moved very slowly, first putting Marine guards around the Telefunken properties,
then placing naval officers as censors in the stations. A minor scandal erupted
when it was discovered the Germans were wining and dining young naval officers
to keep them off their censoring jobs while sending coded messages to and from
Berlin. A final straw 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. Poulsenís Telegraphone was
regularly used in all these transmissions.
On intercepting the Zimmerman message, the US
Navy 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 stations were given to the new
RCA as part of reparations for the war. Poulsen, who obviously knew of his
machineís 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 information
(2) 'Some possible forms of phonograph' by
Oberlin Smith, The Electrical World, September 8th 1888.
(3) Danish Patent 1,260, Valdemar Poulsen, 1898.
has written many articles about his experiences over the years, as well as those
who were the pioneers in the telecommunications and broadcast industries.