The Artifice of Nineteenth-Century Phonographic Business Dictation


During the first half of the nineteenth century, the advent of photography as an automatic technology for capturing images inspired fantasies of an equivalent technology that would enable people to create written documents simply by speaking. This was the primary context into which the phonograph was born: when Thomas Edison hit upon its principle in 1877, his first impulse was to use it to streamline the production of conventional written documents. While past scholarship has focused on the failure of phonographic business dictation relative to phonographic entertainment as part of a narrative centered on the rise of the commercial recording industry, this essay redirects attention toward processes of composition and editing on which the phonograph’s social utility as a text-making tool depended. When the phonograph was used to generate a typewritten business letter, the goal was not to produce a “record” of a given speech event but to allow the dictator to compose a socially acceptable written document quickly and conveniently. The practical need to correct mistakes in recorded dictations led to the formulation of editing techniques that anticipated those associated with later “art” phonography and also predated comparable editing practices in film.