Smith, Oberlin

Smith, Oberlin
b. 22 March 1840 Cincinnati, Ohio, USA
d. 18 July 1926
American mechanical engineer, pioneer in experiments with magnetic recording.
Of English descent, Smith embarked on an education in mechanical engineering, graduating from West Jersey Academy, Bridgeton, New Jersey, in 1859. In 1863 he established a machine shop in Bridgeton, New Jersey, that became the Ferracute Machine Company in 1877, eventually specializing in the manufacture of presses for metalworking. He seems to have subscribed to design principles considered modern even in the 1990s, "always giving attention to the development of artistic form in combination with simplicity, and with massive strength where required" (bibliographic reference below). He was successful in his business, and developed and patented a large number of mechanical constructions.
Inspired by the advent of the phonograph of Edison, in 1878 Smith obtained the tin-foil mechanical phonograph, analysed its shortcomings and performed some experiments in magnetic recording. He filed a caveat in the US Patent Office in order to be protected while he "reduced the invention to practice". However, he did not follow this trail. When there was renewed interest in practical sound recording and reproduction in 1888 (the constructions of Berliner and Bell \& Tainter), Smith published an account of his experiments in the journal Electrical World. In a corrective letter three weeks later it is clear that he was aware of the physical requirements for the interaction between magnetic coil and magnetic medium, but his publications also indicate that he did not as such obtain reproduction of recorded sound.
Smith did not try to develop magnetic recording, but he felt it imperative that he be given credit for conceiving the idea of it. When accounts of Valdemar Poulsen's work were published in 1900, Smith attempted to prove some rights in the invention in the US Patent Office, but to no avail.
He was a highly respected member of both his community and engineering societies, and in later life became interested in the anti-slavery cause that had also been close to the heart of his parents, as well as in the YMCA movement and in women's suffrage.
Apart from numerous technical papers, he wrote the book Press Working of Metals, 1896. His accounts on the magnetic recording experiments were "Some possible forms of phonograph", Electrical World (8 September 1888): 161 ff, and "Letter to the Editor", Electrical World (29 September 1888): 179.
Further Reading
F.K.Engel, 1990, Documents on the Invention of Magnetic Recording in 1878, New York: Audio Engineering Society, Reprint no. 2,914 (G2) (a good overview of the material collected by the Oberlin Smith Society, Bridgeton, New Jersey, in particular as regards the recording experiments; it is here that it is doubted that Valdemar Poulsen developed his ideas independently).

Biographical history of technology. - Taylor & Francis e-Librar. . 2005.

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