Oberlin Smith and the Invention of Magnetic Recording

Philadelphia Inquirer, Thursday, Dec 29, 1988.

If it weren't for Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell, we'd all be watching television in the dark with no way to order out for pizza.

But imagine life if we hadn't had Oberlin Smith.

Before you say "Oberwho what?" imagine a world in which there are no VCRs, no tape decks, no answering machines, no floppy disks for the home computer.

Smith, a turn-of-the-century industrialist and mechanical wizard from Bridgeton, N.J., invented magnetic recording 100 years ago - yet his name is hardly a household word.

Less than a year after Edison showed him his recently invented phonograph, Smith conceived the process that makes possible video and sound tape recording and the recording of information on computer disks. But it is only on the centennial of his invention that due credit and limelight are beginning to come his way.

Thomas Edison

Thomas Edison 1878

Smith was a tinkerer and a fiddler – he couldn't look at a gadget without trying to improve it, and he patented more than 70 of his inventions. The majority involved machines sold or used by the Ferracute Machine Co., a firm he founded in Bridgeton in 1873 that produced industrial metal presses. His machines stamped out parts, for Model-T' Fords, Packards, Winchester rifles and Kodak cameras.

Yet it's also possible that Smith was the world's first couch potato, at one point the only man in the world who could sit in his armchair while operating a remote-controlled home audio system. Having purchased a top-of-the-line phonograph with interchangeable records, he designed a record changer and remote control unit, connected to the phonograph by wires, allowing him to select any of the 50 records in the phonograph by the push of a button, without leaving his chair. It was the first jukebox.

In December 1877, Edison made public his phonograph, which reproduced the sound recorded as bumps and notches on a foil-covered cylinder. Smith went to Edison's laboratory to see and hear the invention.

"In an early acquaintance with Mr. Edison, he showed me his recently invented phonograph machine in which a cylinder coated with tinfoil both received and reproduced the remarks made to it," Smith wrote in a 1911' letter to the Franklin Institute. "This he jokingly informed me would run backward and would reproduce the words mad dog into something that sounded more profane, if not so dangerous."

Within 10 months, Smith had developed two 'possible improvements to the phonograph'. One was to record phonograph signals on a long wire that could be stored on reels, so that a longer piece of music could be recorded. The other was to store the sound as a magnetic signal on a silk or cotton thread impregnated with steel or some other metal powder. This is the idea on which modern magnetic recording is based.

Edison Lab

Edison's Lab appearance when Oberlin Smith made his visit

Smith proposed using the microphone from the recently invented telephone to convert sound into electrical signals. The current would run through a magnetic coil, creating a series of magnetic pulses as it passed through. That pattern would be recorded on the thread as it was drawn through the coil.

Over the next decade, Smith experimented with magnetic recording, but the booming sales of his Ferracute machine presses limited and eventually eliminated the time he had for his electronics research. In the Sept 8, 1888 issue of Electrical World, he placed his idea in the public domain for someone else to develop.

"There being nowadays throughout the scientific world great activity of thought regarding listening and talking machines," he wrote, "the readers of the Electrical World may be interested in a description of two or three possible methods of making a phonograph which the writer contrived some years ago but which were laid aside and never brought to completion on account of a press of other work."

In Europe, where a French translation of Electrical World was published and where the first working magnetic recorder was developed, it was believed that Smith was either a pen name for a physicist who didn't want to admit he was dabbling in the mundane realm of electronic devices or his ideas were pipe-dream science fiction.

And so Smith's claim to fathering magnetic recording faded into obscurity until Friedrich Engel, an audio tape engineer for BASF, a West German audio and videotape firm, began researching the history of magnetic recording for the Audio Engineering Society and unearthed Smith's letter to Electrical World..

"A recently discovered letter {written by Smith) proves that Smith constructed a unit with functional transducers, which could at least be used for experimental purposes, and is therefore the inventor of the magnetic sound recording technique,. Engel wrote this year in the Journal of the Audio Engineering Society.

"The proper historical sequence of events requires that we should re write the opening chapter of the history of magnetic sound recording”

To honor Smith, who died in 1926 some Bridgeton residents are trying to preserve the vacant Ferracute factory and offices on Commerce Street where they would like to set up a laid museum of Smith's inventions.

From back yard

"It's easy to think that we know' about Smith just because he's from our back yard - that what he did wasn't that important because the world would know about it if it was," said James Gandy, who lives in the Cumberland County seat and who uncovered some of the documents establishing Smith as the inventor of magnetic recording. "Magnetic recording is not his only claim to fame - Ford and others couldn't have done what they did if they didn't have Smith's presses."

In the last 100 years, ,magnetic recording’s journey from Smith's work bench to today's state-of-the-art sound and video recorders has passed several major milestones.

A 24-second speech by Austrian Emperor Franz Josef I created quite a stir at the Paris exposition of 1900. Using the Telegraphone, the speech was recorded on apiece of wire coiled around a cylinder in the battery operated machine. This was the first working magnetic sound recorder developed by Danish engineer Valdemar Poulsen.

"Poulsen simply Copied Smith's ideas," said Stephen Temmer of New York, who is working with Engel on the history of magnetic sound recording. "Smith and Poulsen met in Paris in 1900, when Poulsen was displaying his Telegraphone. We have a letter Smith wrote to Poulsen describing his disappointment that Poulsen didn’t see fit to give him credit”

The leap from wire recorders to tape recorders began with an Austrian paper engineer.' Fritz Pfleumer, who was developing a cigarette filter using bronze powder bonded to paper. Representatives of BASF asked Pfleumer whether he could bond powder to tape. He could. In 1934, a joint project for BASF and another German company, AEG, resulted in the first tape recorder. Although an improvement, the recordings still contained a lot of background noise. The tape recorder remained more a research and development project than a finished product.

Chronology of Magnetic Recording