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Jurassic Telecommunications, Part I

Valdemar Poulsen

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 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, 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.

Don Kimberlin has written many articles about his experiences over the years, as well as those who were the pioneers in the telecommunications and broadcast industries.