Lawrence D. Weiss: Rogna and the Wax Cylinders

Last year I unexpectedly received a large nondescript
cardboard box in the mail. It was nearly a yard square and weighed 35 or 40
pounds. There was no return address.  I lugged this awkward, heavy enigma
home from the post office, wrestled it through the door and up the stairs into
the middle of our living room. There it sat — squat, dirty, bruised, and
unforthcoming. My wife and I looked at it. I could imagine it coyly staring
back thinking “Now what?”

Christy slowly circled it staring suspiciously at the
cubic conundrum. Suddenly she said, “It’s a refrigerator. Did you buy a little
refrigerator for your home office so you don’t have to come upstairs for a beer
or cold water or a cheese snack?” I protested vehemently but not righteously. I
really did want a mini fridge for my office. I wanted a microwave too, but I
hadn’t ordered either appliance.

“Why do you think it’s a refrigerator?” I asked. Pointing
to the side of the box facing her, she said “Because it says that right here.”
 Sure enough, there was a little label on her side of the box with an
arrow pointing up and the words, “Refrigerator. This Side Up.”

Here is what flashed through my mind: A few years ago I
ordered a set of hanging folder racks from Amazon for my elderly filing
cabinet. The racks cost maybe $25. For reasons perhaps not known even to
Amazon, a couple weeks after placing my order I received a long heavy carton
from Amazon with $450 worth of high-end skate boards inside. I called Amazon
inquiring about my missing file hangers and my unexpected largesse of
skateboards. After a great deal of “Please hold while I blah blah blah…” the
customer service lady finally responded by informing me that they were sorry
that they were not able to complete the order of file hanger racks, and they
would refund my payment. Regarding the skateboards, they had mistakenly sent
them, but now, “They are yours to keep, no charge. Do not return
them.” I later sold this manna of skateboards on Craig’s List.

Naturally, I was thinking deja vu. Somebody accidentally
sent me a mini-fridge which now, guilt free, I could enjoy in my home office.
Time to unveil my new office companion.  I eagerly ripped off the carton
flaps to liberate my new mini-fridge from its soiled confines. Instantly I
realized something was wrong, dreadfully wrong. There was no refrigerator, but
there was a huge mound of wadded bubble wrap with something much smaller buried
in it. I launched into the bubble wrap and there, in the center of the packing
cocoon, were two heavy beachball-sized bubble-encased somethings.

Each one was lavishly but inexpertly rolled in dozens of
feet of bubble wrap. I carefully peeled back the layers of bubble wrap from the
objects. Finally, there it was: dull green, dusty, slightly rusted, some
assembly required, a welter of memories and emotions included. Once reassembled
it was a 1940s Dictaphone complete with floor stand and wax cylinders. It was
just like the one my dad once used in his home office for his
court-reporting business.

Finally I understood. Only one other person alive in the
world today knew about the Dictaphone in our family — my brother. It was a
sentimental birthday gift. He loves surprises.

The Dictaphone my dad used was a direct descendent of a
recording device invented in Alexander Graham Bell’s laboratory in 1881. It
enabled the recording and replaying of sound on wax cylinders roughly the size
of a pint beer glass. These machines were widely used in the first half of the
20th century. Dad used his well into the 1950s when he finally replaced it with
a reel-to-reel tape recorder.

Dad was a court reporter who used the Gregg shorthand
method, a type of speed writing that looked like a worm researcher’s field
notes.  After dad spent a few hours in court or at a deposition, he would
come home and read into the Dictaphone what he had “written” in his notebook.
The next day he would take the wax cylinders he had recorded to his down town office
and give them to Rogna, the friendly frizzy-haired office transcriptionist. She
listened to dad’s recorded wax cylinders and typed them into transcripts for
the court and for attorneys.

As a kid in the 1950s I loved going with dad to his
office so I could say hello to Rogna. She sat in a little space right off the
main office hallway wearing a headset, listening to recordings dad made on the
wax cylinders, furiously typing away on a transcript. When I stood at her side
and said hello to her, she always had a big smile for me, asked me how I was,
what was I doing in school, and how were my mother and brother. She listened
patiently as I answered, and we had a little talk.

Here is the amazing thing about Rogna: during our entire
conversation she never stopped typing. She never even slowed down. I know
because I could not stop watching the mesmerizing blur of her fingers on the
keyboard. It was like she had two completely separate brains: the
listen-to-Dad-and-type-transcripts brain, and the listen-to-Larry-and-have-a-friendly-chat


Rogna and my dad have long since passed away. They did
not live long enough to see the burgeoning profusion of technologies that
rendered their considerable personal skills quaint and historical. Their
occupations have been replaced with typewriter-like stenographic machines
operated by a new generation of court reporters. The coded “shorthand” is read
by a computer program and directly converted into a draft transcript. No Rogna

The once common wax cylinder Dictaphone now inhabits a
dingy corner of the occasional idiosyncratic museum (or, in our home, a place
of honor next to the living room coffee table). It has been replaced by
inexpensive digital recorders the size of a package of gum with a solid state
memory equal to thousands of wax cylinders.

These and many other recently developed hardware and
software technologies are not just limited to use in court reporting. Writers
of fiction and non-fiction have unparalleled opportunities to take advantage of
these new technologies. Surely Rogna would have been astounded by the newest
generations of speech-to-text software such as Dragon Naturally Speaking or
Google voice recognition applications. The writer talks while the software
types. The accuracy is uncanny.

Sophisticated word processing programs are available for
free for all major operating systems. Some are specially designed for creative
writers. Free or low cost mind mapping software helps writers brainstorm
concepts and create visual outlines and relationships. Free operating systems such
as Ubuntu or Mint rival Windows for user-friendly functionality, and come with
over 60,000 free open source programs to meet a writer’s every digital need.
Digital publishing is in an explosive growth stage, a no-cost wild west
frontier for writers who want to explore electronic self-publishing and
marketing processes.

I’ll be discussing these and other new technologies of
interest to fiction and non-fiction writers in Digital Tools for the Creative Writer. This is
a three-hour course offered by 49 Writers Saturday, April 26, 9:00 am–12:00 pm.
Register now. You will have fun, you will learn about resources to help you in
the creative writing process, and you will meet some like-minded creative
writers. What better way is there to spend a Saturday morning?

This course is dedicated to dad, Rogna, the wax cylinder
Dictaphone, and writers everywhere.

WEISS PhD has lived in Anchorage since 1982. He formerly taught sociology and
public health at UAA, and has been the executive director of two non-profit
organizations engaged in public health and social policy matters. He is the
author of several books and numerous papers on topics such as the economic
history of the Navajo people, public health issues, and Alaska gold rush era
history. He has conducted scores of in-depth interviews during four decades,
and created narratives and transcripts based on many of them. He purchased his
first computer in 1984 and has been attempting to integrate his professional
and avocational activities with his digital interests ever since.

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