I always wanted to be Lois Lane. On Saturdays, I would watch Lois & Clark from beneath my mum’s potted plants and mock up copies of The Daily Planet on my stepdad’s typewriter. Sometimes, I pretended that the kitchen radio recorded the interviews that I conducted with the cat.
The delusion stretched so far that I remember constructing elaborate fantasies in which an unknown, wealthy relative would one day send me a dictaphone. Only then would I be able to record my friends’ impersonations of pop stars, and only then could I tape the private conversations that went on around the corner.
As I grew up, I forgot about Lois. Our typewriter broke, Lois & Clark got cancelled, and the dictaphone never arrived. My fantasies about using tape players to monitor, spy, and report on my family and friends were gradually replaced with more permissible dreams.
Yet I still remember how important, how disproportionately exciting, it seemed to be able to record and to play back voices.
Nobody knows who invented the dictaphone. Its history has long been muddled with the development of the phonograph, which was invented by Thomas Edison in 1877. Edison believed that the phonograph would be primarily used for office dictation, but the earliest machines recorded sound onto a tinfoil sheet, which soon proved to be inefficient.
It took a rival company to create the “Graphophone,” adding heavy wax cylinders to Edison’s design in order to make dictation clearer. Even so, Edison did not abandon the project entirely. Returning to his design when the cylinders became mass-produced in the 1880s, he created the rival “Ediphone.”
One of the dictaphone’s earliest prototypes was sent to Leo Tolstoy. The novelist politely approved of the machine. The “Ediphone” was wonderful, he said, but it would be “too dreadfully exciting” for him to use.
Tolstoy was not alone in his reservations and voice recording did not catch on as immediately as Edison had hoped. Capturing voices was uncanny in practice, a fact made all the more apparent by the machine’s scientific appearance, which dramatically contrasted with its production of disembodied voices.
This is something that novelists seemed particularly sensitive to. Several chapters of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, published in 1897, depict Dr. Seward, the administrator of an insane asylum, recording notes and interviews onto the new technology. Mina Harker, the long-suffering object of Dracula’s attentions, struggles to listen to the dictations, believing that traces of the doctor’s physical pain have been preserved in the recordings.
His speech, she claims, reveals something that would have remained concealed in his writing: “This machine is wonderful…but it is so cruelly true. It told me, in its very tones, the anguish of your heart…I have copied the words on my typewriter, and none other need now hear your heart beat, as I did.” Stoker perceives vulnerability in the recorded voice which is absent from the written word. Like Tolstoy, Mina describes the technology as “wonderful,” yet she cannot bring herself to continue using it and hurriedly transcribes to the page so that no one else might suffer.
In this instance, Seward’s pain is supernaturally induced, relating as it does to the insane and the vampiric. But the recordings are “so cruelly true” because recorded speech insists its presence. The written word exists in the past and is brought to the present by the reader, but speech can only ever exist in the present moment. The recorded voice travels through time, bringing with it the particular rhythms of the past. It dictates its own tempo from the point at which it was recorded and it is this insistence, this presence, that made the earliest dictaphones so unsettling.
Last month, I received a USB stick in the post. It was full of notes and photos from a trip I had taken, sent by a friend from Australia. Alongside the photos sat an MP3, an hour-and-a-half long. Pressing play, I heard a recording of the two of us in a bar.
We were telling stories to a dictaphone; stories about using dictaphones.
“Decadence,” my friend was saying, “He stole my brother’s voice.”
We had recorded a long and complex story about my friend’s relationships with another group of friends. My friend (who I shall call V) had gotten into the habit of sending tapes to the people she knew abroad. These tapes included quotes from her dad about literature, noises from her street, and long monologues about the punk scene in Melbourne.
Once, she sent a tape to a DJ friend in America, recording a heartfelt “I miss you” at the start of the message. She asked her brother to speak next. He was eighteen at the time, about to leave for Ecuador, and living as a self-confessed “decadent.”
“So, I ask him to explain what his concept of decadence is, I thought it would be funny–dead, dead funny. And my brother, he goes on this long spiel: ‘Decadence is masturbating with a champagne bottle. Man, it’s covering yourself in chocolate, all over – that’s decadence.’”
“A year later, he sends me a CD, where he’s spliced all this shit together. Going round and round is my brother talking about chocolate and champagne, and me telling him how much I’d missed him. Fuck that.”
The DJ had made the speech into a sample, looping “Decadence” and “masturbating” as refrains rooted in a bizarre and hectic psy-trance track. The sound of lasers squealed across the recording and V heard her emotional message isolated and echoed, alongside her brother’s ramblings.
“He never asked,” she said. “And if he had, I would have said no. Now someone, somewhere in America is listening to my brother talking about masturbating, covered in chocolate.”
The point, V claimed, was agency.
“He stole it,” she says, as the MP3 comes to an end, “he stole my brother’s voice.”
In 1886, Dostoyevsky hired a stenographer, after promising his publisher that he would deliver his next novel in six weeks. Vastly surpassing his expectations, he dictated The Gambler in twenty-six days. And then he married the girl.
The invention of the dictation machine emphasised the division of men’s and women’s labor roles. The process of recording was overtly sexualized. In Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Voice of Science” (1891), the recording of a young suitor is described in the following, subtlest of tones: “into the slots he thrust virgin plates, all ready to receive impression, and then, bearing the phonograph under his arm, he vanished into his own sanctum.” It would always be the male speaker, recording his thoughts, to be passively received by the female listener.
As the device made its way into offices, the image of conquest extended, with women envisioned as the dictation interpreters who would liberate men from the confines of the office. Marketing campaigns appealed to the wives of businessmen, pitching the dictaphone as a replacement stenographer. A machine for dictation decreased the contact time between the executive and his secretary, freeing men from the restrictive spaces of corporate life. With a dictaphone to hand, there was no silly young women to flirt with your husband, no temptation away from home.
Yet the dictaphone was never truly a success. Transcription pools were unpopular places to work because of the close supervision that employees were subjected to and the repetitive nature of the work. Women who were promoted to become private secretaries came to associate the dictaphone with a lower class of employee and stenography continued to be taught long after dictation machines were widely available.
Men and women alike noted that the process of dictation was both unskilled and antisocial. Taking dictation by hand was a valuable time for interaction. And for men in a position of power, private secretaries denoted achievement. A female employee added to the status of her employer, which was something that a machine would never do.
Ten years after giving up on Lois, I finally bought a dictaphone. I made my first recording in a car park behind a warehouse, flanked by four of my gamest friends. The first tape begins with giggles, the sound of traffic passing in the background.
Or rather, the tape begins with white noise, which is gradually dotted by laughter as we struggle to hold down the tiny record button.
The dictaphone became my peculiar notebook of street noises, buskers, drunks, and car radios. The recordings were inclusive but never done in secret.
I had always been a self-conscious keeper of diaries. I was unsure of who I was writing to and nervous that someone might read it. Notebooks, I found, removed this pressure. Sitting so peculiarly between fact and fiction, they held at least some claim to objectivity which I found to be liberating. They were based in a fallacy of random observation, bypassing a diary’s linearity, and foregoing its authority.
The writer of a notebook is not making claims to its reader; their notations need not have a purpose. Each entry remains neatly tied to the outside world, a respectful distance from interpretation and judgment, masquerading as record if it keeps events and emotions separate. Joan Didion famously wrote that the apparent randomness of observation was the closest thing to narrative truth that she could find. “Our notebooks give us away,” she suggested, because in the act of rereading what we once observed, the scene and its emotion reappear. With more clarity than a journal, with more detail than a ticket stub, the innocuous note of the cat in a triangle of sunlight brings us to our former selves as if returning to the scene in which we sat.
Yet the subjectivity of note-taking is inherent. The passers-by of a lunch hour, the gossip of distant relatives, the lines of a newspaper article as they veer into racism. We are marked by what we observe.
The dictaphone was a peculiar notebook because I rarely recorded with purpose. Only now, hearing voices that I haven’t heard in years, do I notice that these scenes are more vivid for their opacity. When I listen to these conversations, the places in which we sat return with more clarity simply because I have to fill in the blanks for myself. Filtering through the background noise, the muffled sounds from other tables, the chime of a clock in the distance, these sounds assert their presence as if no time has passed at all.
Physically, the dictaphone was beautiful: dark grey and unwieldy. It ran on full-sized tapes and had a red flashing light which constantly alerted the unsuspecting that it was recording. When it paused, the sound of powered-down batteries creaked out from its speaker, and when it rolled, it did so with a rich, mechanical clink.
Listening now, it seems strangest that I join in the same places. Out of the tape’s new distortion, two voices emerge, tossing innuendos around at the expense of Roald Dahl and his illustrator, Quentin Blake. This goes on for around twenty minutes, with no context or explanation, ending with an emotional rendition of “Yesterday” that eventually incapacitates each participant with giggles.
These are in-jokes so old that I can’t remember them. But when I listen to the tapes my laughter peaks at the same points as it did, in that car park, seven years ago. Roald and Quentin assert their presence as if no time has passed at all.
The dictaphone became a kind of notebook, but one in which there were many players. At parties, I passed it between friends–people would turn it cautiously in their hands, looking at me as if I were trying to catch them out. It was often met with hesitancy, but this quickly gave way to acceptance. After the fear had passed, everyone suffered from an attack of the Dear Diary’s and became insufferable show-offs.
“Note to self,” they would begin, “obtain a helper monkey.”
“Note to dictaphone,” they would conclude, “I love you.”
The fact that I was recording was then forgotten completely. Their normal voices returned.
My interest didn’t last. After six months, the recordings slowed. Soon, it took months, then years to fill a tape, until finally I stopped altogether. I found the dictaphone again last year, lying at the bottom of a box. Battery acid had leaked out the back, melding distorted postcards around its former frame and bubbling over the final tape which was still inside.
The contents of the tape are unknown.
Rachel Sykes researches contemporary US fiction but has a lot of time for Gogol, Prince, and the genre-defying work, Dreamgirls.