Oberlin Smith and Valdemar Poulsen

Human subtlety will never devise an invention more beautiful, more simple, or more direct than does nature because in her inventions nothing is lacking, and nothing is superfluous.
Leonardo da Vinci

Oberlin Smith (1840-1926) in 1890
Oberlin Smith (1840-1926) in 1890

The magnetic tape is the oldest memory media for computers, still in use today. A tape was used for the first time to record data in 1951 in the Mauchly-Eckert UNIVAC I computer, and is still in use today as a cheap and reusable archive media. So, who invented magnetic recording, the basis of many computer recording devices like tapes and hard disks?

At the beginning of 1878 Oberlin Smith, the president and chief engineer of the company
Ferracute Machine Co. of Bridgestone, New Jersey, which specialized in the manufacturing of large metal working presses, visited Thomas Edison’s Menlo Park laboratory, to see his newly invented phonograph machine. As a lover of music, Smith purchased an Edison phonograph, but soon found the audio quality of it to be too scratchy and he questioned the expense and precision of its mechanical parts.

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., which stamped out parts, for Model-T’ Fords, Packards, Winchester rifles, and Kodak cameras. Thus in the spring of 1878, he decided to improve the Edison phonograph, and soon, within several months, he conceived an Electric Phonograph or Recording Telephone, and on 10 Oct. 1878 he draws up a “Caveat” (temporary patent) for the US Patent Office to a certain extent as a preliminary stage for a patent application.

Oberlin Smith's magnetic thread
Smith’s magnetic thread

Oberlin had fabricated a cotton or silk thread (see the nearby drawing from the 1878 “Caveat”), into which steel dust or short clippings of fine wire would be suspended. These particles were to be magnetized in accordance with the alternating current from a microphone source. Smith also discussed the possibility of using a hard steel wire but thought it scarcely possible. It seems however that a working unit was never built. He also 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.

Strangely, Smith failed to recognize the importance of his invention, and never got a patent for it, but decided to place his idea in the public domain for someone else to develop. This happened some 10 years later, as late as 8 September 1888, in the article “Some Possible Forms of Phonograph” of the British magazine Electrical World (see the article of Smith, digitized by Google). In continental 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.

The Telegraphone of Valdemar Poulsen
The Telegraphone of Valdemar Poulsen

Smith’s ideas were further developed by the Danish engineer Valdemar Poulsen (1869–1942). In 1894 he discovered the magnetic recording principle while working as a mechanic in the Copenhagen Telegraph Company. In 1898 in his Telegraphone (see the nearby image) Poulsen implemented for the first time the magnetic wire, and it was the first practical apparatus for magnetic sound recording and reproduction. In the same 1898 Poulsen obtained a patent in Denmark for his device, and later did the same in other countries, see for example US patent 661619). Magnetic wire recording, and its successor, magnetic tape recording, involve the use of a magnetizable medium that moves past a recording head. An electrical signal, which is analogous to the sound that is to be recorded, is fed to the recording head, inducing a pattern of magnetization similar to the signal. A playback head (which may be the same as the recording head) can then pick up the changes in the magnetic field from the tape and convert them into an electrical signal.

Poulsen later developed other magnetic recorders that recorded on a steel wire, tape, or disks. None of these devices had electronic amplification, but the recorded signal was easily strong enough to be heard through a headset or even transmitted on telephone wires. At the 1900 World Exposition in Paris, Poulsen had the chance to record the voice of Emperor Franz Josef of Austria, today preserved in the Danish Museum of Science and Technology as the oldest magnetic sound recording in existence.

When Poulsen’s patent expired in 1918, it was Germany to led efforts to improve magnetic recording. In the early 1920’s German inventor and entrepreneur, Dr. Curt Stille (1873-1957) from Berlin modified Poulsen’s Telegraphone to use electronic amplification and marketed the patent rights to the device, a wire recorder, to German and British companies. In 1928, Stille formed the Echophone Co. and contracted with Ferdinand Schuchard AG and its talented young engineer Semi Joseph Begun (1905-1995) to manufacture the Dailygraph, the first cassette (magnetic wire) recorder. Semi Joseph Begun also developed the Stahltone-Bandmaschine steel 6 mm wide tape recorder in 1935. Wire and steel tape however was not a good solution and would be replaced in the 1930s by thin plastic tape, conceived by Fritz Pfleumer.

Fritz Pfleumer with his magnetic tape machine (1931)
Fritz Pfleumer with his magnetic tape machine (1931)

Dr. Fritz Pfleumer (20 March 1881, Salzburg, Austria – 29 August 1945, Radebeul, Germany) was a German-Austrian engineer. He graduated in engineering from the University of Dresden in 1902. Pfleumer had developed a process for putting metal stripes on cigarette papers, and reasoned that he could similarly coat a magnetic stripe, to be used as an alternative to wire recording. In 1927, after experimenting with various materials, Pfleumer used very thin paper which he coated with iron oxide powder using lacquer as glue. In 1928 Pfleumer was granted a patent in Germany for the application of magnetic powders to strips of paper or film.

In 1930 the AEG (Allgemeine Elektrizitats Gesellschaft) company in Berlin, decided to start the development of the Magnetophone machine, based on the Pfleumer principle, and in 1932 Pfleumer granted the right of use to the AEG based on his invention. In the same 1932 AEG signed an agreement of collaboration with BASF, the company of Ludwigshafen: AEG developed the system, BASF an appropriate sound carrier. BASF had a rich experience and in 1934 was able to ship the first 50000 meters of magnetic tape. The tape consisted of a foil of cellulose acetate as carrier material, coated with a lacquer of iron oxide as a magnetic pigment, and cellulose acetate as a binder. During the 1935 Radio Fair in Berlin, the Magnetophone and the Magnetic Tape were presented to the public.


In 1936 the German National Court canceled Pfleumer’s patent because his idea of coating paper tape with iron dust was covered in Valdemar Poulsen’s original patents of 1898 and 1899, so Poulsen stands alone as the inventor of all magnetic recording. The magnetic tape was not used to record data until 1950, when the UNISERVO I (see the nearby image), the first digital tape recorder was developed in Eckert-Mauchly Co. and was implemented in the 1951 UNIVAC I computer. UNIVAC I had 2 types I/O devices: An operator’s console, and up to 10 UNISERVO tape drives. The recording medium was a 1/2 (13 mm) inch-wide thin band of nickel-plated phosphor bronze (so-called Vicalloy). The tape was 1200 feet long. Recording density was 128 bits per inch on eight tracks (six for the data value, one parity channel for error checking, and one timing channel) at a linear speed of 100 inches per second, yielding a data rate of 12800 characters per second. The UNISERVO drive supported both forward and backward modes on read or write operation. This offered significant advantages in data sorting and merging applications. The data transfers to/from the UNIVAC I processor were fully buffered in one block of dedicated memory, permitting instruction execution in parallel with tape movement and data transfer. The internal serial data path permitted inserting a tape data block into the main memory in one instruction.

Biography of Oberlin Smith

Oberlin Smith (1840-1926)
Oberlin Smith (1840-1926)

Oberlin Smith was born in Cincinnati, Ohio on 22 March 1840 to George R. Smith (1815-1857) and Salome Sarah (Kemp) Smith (1813-1884). Both his parents were natives of England (Dorset and Kent), and his father was a leader in the early anti-slavery works of Salmon Portland Chase and operated a link in the Pre-Civil War “underground railroad”. Oberlin was the eldest of four siblings, having a brother Frederick S. (1849-1928), and two sisters—Emily (1841-1927) and Mary E. (1853-1860). His first cousin was Robert Longsdon, proprietor of the Bessemer Patent & Steel Manufr., and co-inventor of the Bessemer process of steel manufacture.

Young Oberlin displayed an early mechanical aptitude and built a working steam engine at the age of fifteen, most likely while learning metalworking at one of the city’s riverboat engine yards while being educated in the public and technical schools of Cleveland.

At his father’s death in 1857, the family relocated to southern New Jersey to live with his mother’s sister and brother-in-law, George and Louisa Howell, on their large farm in Stow Creek. Smith’s family apparently possessed sufficient resources so that Oberlin could attend the West Jersey Academy in nearby Bridgeton. During his off-school vacations, he worked on local farms and also learned carpentry. Later, Oberlin took evening engineering classes at Philadelphia’s Polytechnic College, before entering the employ of the Cumberland Nail and Iron Works in his new hometown of Bridgeton, New Jersey.

During his tenure at the Cumberland Nail and Iron Works, Smith applied for and received a patent for a device that would cut and ream pipe at the same time. Smith was rewarded with a fifty-dollar bonus. Five years later, Smith started a tiny machine works and repair shop in Bridgeton. Soon, a talented Philadelphia cousin from his father’s side, John Burkett Webb (1841-1912), joined Oberlin as a partner in 1863.

The partnership of Smith & Webb initially did a general jobbing shop trade, making wrought-iron fence and railing, plumbing and gas fixtures, and refitting or reworking broken machines and parts. Some of their repair business came from the numerous food-canning outfits in the district, and Smith determined that he could design a better foot-operated press, and the new press slowly achieved market success.

Oberlin and Charlotte Smith in front of their mansion on East Lake
Oberlin and Charlotte Smith in front of their mansion on East Lake

By 1873, Webb amicably left the partnership to pursue his career in academia. Smith brought in his younger brother Frederick as a replacement partner, and committed his facilities to the manufacture of foot-driven presses for canning enterprises, and began advertising in industry periodicals. Within three years, he designed a version for belt-power hookup; seventy-two machines of both varieties and in four models sold during 1874-76, three of which went to international customers in Canada, Australia, and Sweden.

Oberlin Smith met Charlotte E. Hill (1839-1918) while she was teaching at the Ivy Hall School for Girls in Bridgeton. They were married on Christmas Day, 1876 in Bernardston Mass. Two children were born to the family: Winifred Hill in 1878 and Percival Hill in 1880.

In 1877, a small business was incorporated as the Ferracute Machine Co., engaged in the manufacture of various forms of machinery, including many of Smith’s own inventions. Ferracute Machine Co. specialized in manufacture presses for working metals. Over the sixty-three years of Oberlin Smith’s tenure as chief engineer and president of Ferracute, he designed over five hundred kinds and sizes and obtained over fifty patents on these designs alone. While most of Smith’s inventions related to presswork, there were several in entirely outside fields. Among them were such widely divergent lines as improved looms, dump carts, keyless locks, automatic garage door openers, and egg boiling.

Oberlin Smith was a prolific writer and lecturer, his works covering science, fiction, and even theology. He published two books, “Press Working of Metals” still considered to be an authoritative work on the subject, and a metaphysics work, “Tho Material, Why Not Immortal?” Other interests that Oberlin Smith enjoyed were rowing, motoring, dancing, and golf. He was a member of many societies and organizations like the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME), New Jersey Commissioner to the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo New York, American Institute of Mining and Metallurgical Engineers, the American Institute of Electrical Engineers, American Society of Civil Engineers, American Iron and Steel Institute, Franklin Institute, American Association for the Advancement of Science, Engineer’s Clubs of both New York and Philadelphia, American Automobile Association, National Geographic Society, and many others. He also made several European tours for the purpose of engineering observations. His acquaintanceship was very wide; among his intimate friends, he numbered such well know individuals as Thomas A. Edison and Henry Ford.

Oberlin Smith passed away at the age of eighty-six, early in the morning of Monday 19 July 1926 at his Lochwold estate in Bridgeton New Jersey, following an attack of heart failure.