Joseph Pfender: Struck History

Joseph Pfender (New York University) begins to sketch out a cross-disciplinary area of research and thinking, touching on sound studies but much more closely allied with global circulation and history of technology. Its relation to his dissertation work on magnetic tape experimentalism is tangential, but might triangulate a comparative global history of technology in which musicologists could participate.

Joe’s blog can be found here.

Struck History: Industrialization & Magnetic Sound Recording

In 1883, a New Jersey metalshop owner named Oberlin Smith notified the U.S. Patent Office of his recently conceived invention, a magnetic sound recording device. Having attended an early demonstration of Edison’s mechanical phonograph, he had immediately intuited the benefit of an electromagnetic medium that would avoid the problem of surface noise. Smith went on to publish his design in the September 8 1888 issue of Electrical World, describing and illustrating a few methods of mechanical sound recording, followed by his purely electromagnetic action.

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Figures from Smith’s publication on magnetic recording principles.

The Dutch inventor Valdemar Poulsen then duplicated Smith’s efforts with his own commercially successful wire recorder in the late 1890s. (Here is a YouTube clip of the first magnetic recording ever made: a few words spoken by Austrian emperor Franz Joseph, at the Telegraphone exhibit at the Paris Exposition Universelle in 1900.) Whether or not Poulsen’s innovation linked back to Oberlin Smith’s, the latter’s realization of sound recording principles bears on the culture of creativity and mobilization in which both men lived. What other insights did Smith’s archives hold, not just about his profession, but about his life and philosophy? Such quotidian observation and thick historical description might provide valuable context for an archaeology of magnetic recording media that critiques the hagiography of these men as inventor-geniuses, but also extends to the commercial, scientific, and technological power structures in which sound recording technology took shape, and ultimately to the geopolitical dynamics which imbue the human-technic relation with cultural meaning.

There is little archival evidence of Smith’s personal life or activities; what exists is largely professional correspondence in the Ferracute Machine Company documents at the Hagley Museum and Library, or incidental remarks and essays, many published in his capacity as president of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. He filed many patent applications in the 1870s, 80s and 90s, for foot- and steam-powered presses, coining machinery, and combination locks in his role as CEO and chief engineer at Ferracute. In addition to these, though, he patented designs for devices that appear unrelated to his business, like an automatic egg-boiler (1877) and a mechanical drink-mixer (1890).

Automatic egg-boiler, 1877: Box 1 Folder: “O Smith, 1877-97 (photocopies) Ferracute: Patents,” Ferracute Machine Company records, Acc. # 192
Drink mixer, 1897: Box 1 Folder: “O Smith, 1877-97 (photocopies) Ferracute: Patents,” Ferracute Machine Company records, Acc. # 1928

Smith’s files and extant writings bespeak an ambient and constant intention towards optimization and the maximization of productivity; his labor-saving inventions produced marginal mechanical improvements, whether “domestic” or “professional.” The leisure necessary to conceive and construct these incremental conveniences would seem to have been a prerequisite for his inventiveness. From the shop’s beginnings in 1863, automation was the substance of Smith’s professional reputation, and after Philadelphia’s Centennial Exposition in 1876 Ferracute began doing significant international business on that basis. Not coincidentally, then, after his initial copyright filings in 1878, a steady stream of commissions prevented any further development of his magnetic recording concept.

While I was looking through the Ferracute Machine Company’s records for more information on Oberlin Smith himself, I discovered that the company had contracted with the Chinese government in 1898 to provide coin minting machinery to the regional government on the central Sichuan province. By Smith’s account, the Chengdu commission consisted of many different types of machine, including crucibles, casting tools, blank-cutting presses, etc.

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The complete silver plant sent to Chengdu. Mint Machinery for China, photo 1049. Box 4 XI. Miscellany. Ferracute Machine Company records, Acc. # 1928

The scale of the commission prompted Ferracute to send Henry Janvier, an employee who spent the better part of a year traveling and assisting with the setup of the coining mint. Janvier, then, produced the bulk of Anglophone correspondence and other archival documentation.

Janvier’s travelogue is highly selective (a letter to his mother described only the “thickly populated banks” of the Yangtse Kiang…because it seems he never left the riverboat during a 1,000 mile trip upriver from Shanghai.)

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First page of a letter Janvier sent 6 weeks after he left New Jersey. Henry Janvier Files Acc. # 1925

His reliability is also compromised by disturbing chauvinism (condescending descriptions of cultural differences in commerce and cuisine, derisive narration of a chicken sacrifice meant to consecrate the coin mint’s inauguration) and grotesque racism (slurs, descriptions of sedan chair porters as animals, and worse). An historical ethnography of this intercultural encounter that accounts for the perspective of Chengdu officials, laborers, and citizens is sorely needed, to counterbalance their dismissive treatment by Anglophone sources.

Following a miscommunication, the machine equipment was left in the flood zone of a riverbank for several weeks. When the mint was finally brought online after rehabilitation, a few spots of corrosion on the striking dies proved irreparable. These imperfections in the promised designs of the coin face were unalloyed failures as far as Janvier was concerned; but the provincial officials were pleased with them, seeing such blemishes and imperfections as security measures against counterfeiting.

Coins minted under the authority of the provincial government. Composite display photo of coin design samples, with negative image of coin heap Box 4 XI. Miscellany, Ferracute Machine Company records, Acc. # 1928

As such divergent and surprising approaches to precision metalwork technique demonstrate, there are deep differences between broad cultural attitudes to technology, and I intend to explore these further.

Ferracute was only one of many Western contractors providing metalwork equipment to Chinese governments during the 1880s and 1890s. Following the Opium Wars, the “self-strengthening” movement (also identified as the Yangwu or Western Affairs movement, roughly 1861-1895) saw an important cultural shift toward both imitating Western technology, and assimilating it.

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Photo taken by Janvier, street crowd with children in Shanghai, Ferracute Machine Company Photograph collection (AVD Acc. # 1987.244) Photo # 87.244.768.

Yuk Hui has recently suggested that this mimetic approach is of a piece with twenty-first century versions of Shanzhai culture, prominent in hardware accelerators in industrial hubs like Shenzhen. Of course, any reductive reading of the Ferracute-Chengdu instance of transcultural commerce as an example of “copycat” culture will be problematic; however, Shanzhai culture is more subtle than that. Literally translated “mountain stronghold,” Shanzhai denotes evasion of corrupted authority (in the West, one thinks of the extralegal ethics of Robin Hood), and this key term has been updated and applied to Shenzhen’s working principle of “open source hardware.”

In pursuing this “self-strengthening” program, the government’s emphasis on instrumentalizing Western technology elevated and valorized the procedural dynamics of imported technological change at the expense of Chinese cultural traditions, with some unexpected results. In the case of Ferracute and the Chengdu mint, the Sichuan government imported not only American machinery, but also contracted to “buy” technological expertise—that is, Henry Janvier himself. Thinking of Janvier’s presence through the technology he tended and represented, maybe we can conceptualize the Qing implementation of “self-strengthening” programs as physically, literally importing a Western technological episteme. Chengdu officials tried strenuously to keep Janvier in Sichuan to continue running the mint, and likely to further expand the government’s manufacturing operations. Perhaps this indicated a calculated attempt by Chengdu officials to bring the “leisured” technology into conversation with late Qing ideas of industry and progress, and further, to monitor that Western technological episteme.

The mythos of the clever and creative engineer, legible in many iterations within different fields but specifically in the public image of Thomas Edison the inventor, is often conflated with the “captain of industry,” Thomas Edison the business executive and owner. Through close reading of Henry Janvier’s one-sided reports, correspondence, and diaries, I want to cast doubt on the imputation of intimate, tactile and tacit knowledge to individuals who wield systemic power. Specifically, the geographical and cultural divide between Bridgeton and Chengdu could shed light on the American, leisure-based process of work optimization. These different public attitudes towards work and leisure between Oberlin Smith’s privileged milieu and the contemporaneous culture in Sichuan province are also refracted in a much more recent study by Clay Shirky.

My hope is that an intercultural history of technology might be able to cut through the typical hagiography of figures like Edison or Henry Ford under the featureless, Teflon sign of Genius. In this instance, international trade and export provided the means and the location for the recapitulation and reproduction of colonial and patrimonial relations that were imposed on China by hostile foreign powers in the early nineteenth century. By recognizing the projection that so often vexes Western descriptions and understandings of East Asia, we might be able to inoculate ourselves more broadly against a fantasy shot through Western scientific and technological epistemologies: the Edisonian fiction of perfect access to engaged, tacit knowledge, combined with perfectly free-willed dominance and ownership. The benefit to musicology and sounds studies of this kind of history lies in its ability to critique constructions of monolithic masculinity that still drive much of the discourse around industrial virility, technological creativity, and musical artistry.

Joseph Pfender is finishing a PhD in musicology at NYU. His dissertation explores the history of American tape experimentalism with the vocabulary of STS & SCOT, philosophy of technology and cybernetics. 

All images reproduced courtesy of Hagley Museum and Library.