Marvin, Carolyn - When Old Technologies Were New : Thinking About Electric Communication in the Late Nineteenth Century

Notes - Garnet Hertz
Updated 20 Jan 2007

General Thoughts

"When Old Technologies Were New" has the primary thesis that technological change echos existing social structures. In other words, new technologies, when introduced, usually fall into patterns of use that do not reorganize economic, gender, and social strata.


[5] {new media} New media may change the perceived effectiveness fo one group's surveillance of another, the permissable familiarity of exchange, the frequency and intensity of contact, and the efficacy of customary tests for truth and deception. Old practices are then painfully revised, and group habits are reformed. New practices do not so much flow directly from technologies that inspire them as they are improvised out of old practices that no longer work in new settings. Efforts are launched to restore social equilibrium, and these efforts have significant social risks. In the end, it is less in new media practices, which come later and point toward a resolution of these conflicts (or, more likely, a temporary truce), than in the uncertainty of emerging and contested practices of communication that the struggle of groups to define and locate themselves is most easily observed.

[5] {new media} Electrical and other media precipitated new kinds of social encounters long before their incarnation in fixed institutional form. In their institutionally incohate manifestations, they inspired energetic efforts to keep outsiders out and insiders under the control of the proper people. Chaotic and creative experiments with new media and thought experiments with their imaginary derivatives attempted to reduce and simplify a world of expanding cultural variety to something more familiar and less threatening.

[5] {new media} New kinds of encounters collided with old ways of determining trust and reliability, and with old notions about the world and one's place in it...

[7] {media fantasies} ...fantasies and dreams are important human products that define limits for imagination. Fantasies help us determine what "consciousness" was in a particualr age, what thoughts were possible, and what thoughts could not be entertained yet or anymore.

[8] {new media} Media are not fixed natural objects; they have no natural edges. They are constructed complexes of habits, beliefs, and procedures embedded in elaborate cultural codes of communication. The history of media is never more or less than the history of their uses, which always lead us away from them to the social practices and conflicts they illuminate. New media, broadly understood to include the use of new communications technology for old or new purposes, new ways of using old technologies, and, in principle, all other possiblities for the exchange of social meaning, are always introduced into a pattern of tension created by the coexistence of old and new, which is far richer than any single medium that becomes a focus of interest because it is novel.

[33] {phonographic clock} Thomas Edison was said to have startled a guest in his home, presumably a social peer, with a phonographic clock that announced the time to the unsuspecting visitor at 11:00 p.m., and the next hour called out, "The hour of midnight has arrived! Prepare to die."

[36] {military electric light attack}

[39] {power, secrets} Priestly groups effect and maintain power by possessing significant cultural secrets.

[45] {hype} Expert appeals for popular support often implied that universal electrical prosperity was not far off, especially for groups that had not been visible beneficiaries of industrialization.

[45] {wireless telegraphy, Marconi}

[50] {dead electrical terms}

[57] {seance image telephone, Hermann}

[65] {margins}

[69] {new media, family, insider, outsider, boundary, boundaries, social, supervision, domestic} New forms of communication put communities like the family under stress by making contacts between it members and outsiders difficult to supervise.

[76] {electricity, gender, domestic, house, appliances, female, woman, male, man, expert, domestic} Electrical journals argued that electricity would replace household servants by mechanizing domestic tasks, and touted it as the "key to the servant difficulty." Electricity would free the mistress of the house from time-consuming chores and help settle once and for all the question of "woman sphere" -- though woman's sphere was defined proximate to electricity with great reluctance by male experts.

[76] {new media, family, insider, outsider, boundary, boundaries, social, control, domestic} New communication technologies were suspect precisely to the extent that they lessened the family's control over what was admitted within its walls.

[77] {electric burgular alarm, burgular alarm}

[78] {domestic, castle, fortress, mansion, insider, outsider, boundary, boundaries, domestic, utopia, internal, inside} Typical was a romantic fantasy of a feudal fortress against the world, where aristocratic inhabitants effortlessly communicated with one another but not at all with outsiders...

[78] {e.h. johnson's electric mansion, electric mansion}

[81-82] {master, servant, maid, pager, domestic, insider, inside, social, control, wearable} Within the home, the emphasis was on enhancing domestic tranquility and improving the facility with which messages passed from masters and servants. Troubled by his maidservents' innattention to the bell that summonef them, a reader of Science Siftings... proposed to put "Hertz wave emitters" in his sitting room and bedroom. Each maid carried a small battery, a tiny electric bell, and a Hertz-wave "detector" in her pocket.

[82] {electric light}

[82-83] {phono-clock, phonoclock, talking clock, talk, phonograph} A more widely known innovattion was the "talking clock," or "phono-clock," a phonograph recording triggered by clockwork, regarded as especially useful not for replacing the servants one had, but for monitoring them more successfully. It was said that the inventor of the talking clock "especially aims at getting lazy servants out of bed, and has constructed the clock's vocal apparatus so that the purchaser's voice can be imitated."[46] The task of the talking clock was to rouse sleepers and get them to work without exception or forgiveness. Almost every account stressed the indignity and relentlessness of its ministrations.[47] If recalcitrant victims did not respond to endless shouted commands, these could be supplemented by special electric gimmicks. For example: "At the recent Leipsic [sic] Far an interesting early-rising appliance was exhibited. By means of a strong electric current the occupant of the bed is twice aroused by the ringing of the bell, after which a tablet with the words, "Time to get up!" is thrust before the sleeper's eyes, then his nightcap is pulled off his head, and last of all -- if not thoroughly awakened by this time -- he is pitched mechanically out of bed on the floor."[48]

[83] {face, talking face clock, phono-face-clock, phonograhic face clock, phono-clock, phonoclock, talking clock, talk, phonograph, body} "...The dial of this clock of the future is, we are told, a human face, from whose uncanny mouth comes the announcement of the hours, as well as any directions which may be left with it."[49]

[84] {operator, telephone, phone, wake-up, alarm, clock, alarm clock, gender, hello girls} ..."hello girls" often acted as personal alarm clocks.

[86] {telephone, telegraph, social, class, barrier} Lower classes could crash barriers otherwise closed to them, and privileged classes could go slumming unobserved.

[86] {royalty, telephone, telegraph, social, class, barrier}

[87] {telepresence, telephone, presence, embodiment, remote, new media, interpersonal} Doubts about the motive and station of the person with whom one was engaged over teh telephone often focused on how to interpret remote or nonimmediate presence, that special form of interpersonal engagement pecular to new media.

[87] {social, class, barrier, presence, telepresence} New forms of presence muddied social distance.

[88] {new media, social, class, barrier} Simply put, new media provided opportunities for the wrong people to be too familiar.

[89] {telephone, personal, moral, morality, class, difference, new media, telepresence} Claims that personal moral qualities were lacking in telephonic exchange, on closer examination, were complaints that missing and missed cues were those of class-based difference.

[89] {profanity, telepresence, new media, gender}

[94] {telegraphic wedlock, marriage, telegraph, wedding}

[97-98] {police, telephone, criminal, law, burgular, photography, surveillance} Electric devices to foil or frighten criminals, gather evidence, or alert authorities to crimes in progress and citizens in need were the subject of elaborate and excited speculation. So were proposals to use secret photography to catch burgulars in the act.

[103] {telephone, democratizing, expansion, class, barrier, resistance} Proposals to widen the reach of telephone service were often indignantly resisted.

[104] {deadhead, deadheads, hack, phreak, hacker, phreaker, telephone, subsciber, nonsubscriber} ["Deadheads" are mentioned as telephone users that were nonsubscribers. This term is dated 1885.]

[104-105] {payphone, payphones, telephone, coin-operated, coin operated}

[107-108] {new media, telephone, social, class, barrier, gender, race, authority, community, family} With the advent of the telephone and other new media came relatively sudden and largely unanticipated possibilities of mixing heterogeneous social worlds -- a useful opportunity for some, a dreadful intrusion for others. New media took social risks, by permitting outsiders to cross boundaries of race, gender, and class without penalty. They provided new ways to silence underclasses and to challenge authority by altering customary orders of secrecy and publicity, and customary properties of address and interaction. Well-insulated communities of pre-telephone days could not remain forever untouched by these developments, nor were telephone companies able to ensure that emerging telephone communities would keep within the bounds of social decorum and work-related use. Somewhere between the expansive intentions of entrepreneurs and the practiced exclusively of familiar social codes, the telephone and other new media introduced a permeable boundary at the vital center of class and family, where innovative experiments could take place in all social relations, from crime to courtship.

[117] {animal electrocution, animal, electrocution, shock, sport, dog, cat, insect}

[121] {nature, electricity, balance}

[123] {electric cocktail, drink, beverage, food}

[123] {electric jewelry, clothing, wearable}

[123-124] {electric pushbutton, button, pushbutton, knob, remote} The electric pushbutton, another luxury artifact, symbolized a streamlined consumer electricity capable of delivering instant gratification... For elites, pushbuttons often symbolized popular desires for dangerously superficial pleasures; for laymen, pushbuttons often signified a world in which decisions about technology were taken beyond the control of ordinary people.

[125] {electric theology, electric religion, theology, religion, electricity}

[129] {galvani, electrical healing, medicine, galvanism}

[130] {electric pills, electric soap, electric tea, electric potion, electric apparel, electric hat, electric, eletricity, medicine, food, drink, clothing, wearable}

[130] {fad}

[131] {virility, sex, sexuality, electricity, health, electric belt, electric corset, clothing, apparel, wearable}

[132] {electric diseases, electric disease, electric, health}

[133] {insanity, sanity, mental, telephone, stomach} ...he claimed to have a telephone in his stomach...

[137] {tesla, electricity, tesla coil, performance} Tesla was well known for a visually spectacular trick of passing hundreds of thousands of volts through his body "while flames flashed from his limbs and fingertips" by means of a special induction coil named for him.

[137-138] {electric girl lighting company, female, gender, body, electricity, clothing, wearable, 1884, 1840s, tesla} In 1884 the Electric Girl Lighing Comapny offered to supply "illuminated girls" for indoor occasions. Young women hired to perform as hostesses and serving girls while decked with filament lamps were advertised to prospective customers as "girls of fifty-candle power each in quantities to suit householders."

[139] {electric clothing, clothing, wearable}

[141] {arteries, roads, railways, waterways, blood, artery}

[141] {nerves, telegraph, telephone, nerve}

[142] {automaton, robot, doll, memory, electric food} [Description of a doll with memory and an automaton that would eat "electric food" - strange.}

[143] {electricity and death, electricity, death}

[144] {electrical apocalypse, apocalypse, end, doom, distopia}

[145] {military, electrical weapons, weapon, remote control, rc, autonomy, autonomous weapons, war}

[152] {definition of media, media, definition, term} Media, of course, are devices that mediate experience by re-presenting messages originally in a different mode.

[153] {telephone, democracy, specacle, accessible, accessibility, public, social} The telephone of this [late 19th century] era was not a democratic medium. Spectacles, by contrast, were easily accessible and entheusiastically relished by their nineteenth-century audiences... elaborate visual spectacles were public occasions long before the introduction of electricity...

[154-155] {skin, communication, transplant, skin transplant, media, medium, biology, graft, biotechnology, paracelsus, alchemy, friends, telecommunication} As reconstructed by the Dundee Advertiser in 1897, Paracelsus had recommended the following experiment: "Two friends who wished to converse at a distance proceeded thus: A piece of skin was cut from the arm or breast of each, and these fragments were "transplanted," so that either party had a portion of the cuticle of the other engrafted on his person. When separated from each other, at a given hour one of them traced on the piece of alien skin with a metal point the letters of the words in his message, and his friend could read these letters on his own arm, no matter how far they were separated.

[155] {mind-watch communicator, communication, mind, watch, wearable, edison, friends, electric sympathy, telecommunication, telepathy, thought} Thomas Edison was usually credited with devising a machine to render communication between friends at opposite ends of the earth possible without wires or appliances, as in this description of an apocryphal invention attributed to him: "Your friend abroad carries a small machine of this new invention, in size and shape resembling an ordinary watch. You carry a similar one. When you wish to communicate with your friend, you take out the watch, the needle of which is in electric sympathy with his machine. The needle oscillates like that of a compass, and when you find the direction in which it points you turn in that direction and think hard. That is all. The claim is that concentrated thought will produce an electric current, and that the mechanism of the new invention is so delicate that it will respond to this current."

[155-156] {telephote, telephotograph, bidwell, telegraph, vision, see, telephone, 1881, telecommunication, communication, love, lover, friends} Mulling over a visionary promise of distant visual communication in an exhibit at the Electrical Exposition in Paris in 1881, the Electrician speculated on effortless long-distance communication in that mode: "The telephotograph of Mr. Shelford Bidwell even gives us the hope of being able, sooner or later, to see by telegraph, and behold our distant friends through the wire darkly, in spite of the earth's curvature and the impenetrability of matter. With a telephone in one hand a telephote in teh other an absent lover will be able to whisper sweet nothings in the ear of his betrothed, and watch the bewitching expression on her face the while, though leagues of land and sea divide their sympathetic persons."

[157] {electrical spectacle, spectacle, television, tv} [TV similar to electrical spectacle.]

[158] {mcluhan, light, electric light, media, medium, information}

[160] {statue of liberty}

[161] {cultural grandeur, grandeur}

[165] {effect effect, the effect effect, electric light, shock, effect, novel, novelty, new media} ...the best effects were always those that had "never before been created" and where guaranteed to "astonish the visitors" that observed them...

[167] {lighted fountains, fountain, illuminated fountains, electric fountains, electricity, water}

[167] {illuminated flags, lighted flags, electric flags}

[171-173] {chicago columbian exposition of 1893, 1893, exposition, expo, chicago}

[175] {electric light, public spectacle, domestic, home, residence, spectacle, public} In sum, the electric light was a public spectacle before it was anything else, certainly before it was a common furnishing in private residences.

[176] {electric clothing, electric clothes, wearable}

[179] {1300 oil lamp illuminated sign, oil lamp, billboard, illuminated sign, sign, 1814}

[182] {paris magic lantern avenues, paris, magic lantern, city, urban, spectacle}

[184] {optical telegraph balloons, optical telegraph, balloons, air, aeronautics, sky, france, paris, 1887, 1888, 1890}

[185-187] {stereopticon, celestial projection, celestial advertising, advertising on the clouds, cloud advertising, projection, sky, air, 1889, america, britian}

[185-186] {searchlight morse code, searchlight, morse code, general electric}

[187] {heliograph, moon, interplanetary communication, space, earth, communication, satellite, flashlight, 1895} Science Siftings reported in 1895 that an American named Hawkins planned to send a flashlight message from London to New York via the moon, using a gigantic heliograph reflector to catch the sun's rays and cast them on the moon's surface. Hawkins had conceived the intellectual principles of satellite relay using the only earth satellite available in 1895.

[187] {new media, space, aliens, social limits, boundary, social, fantasy, global, communication} Both fantasies of communication with intelligent aliens at interplanetary distances and fantasies of global communication titillated the collective capacity for imagining the social limits of new media.

[188] {space, communication with mars, martians, 1893, heliograph, galton}

[189-190] {future, present, 19th century, century, future, expectation, expectations, 20th century, new media, expectations of new media, change, transition, transformation} The nineteenth century conviction that important twentieth-century mass media would look like nothing so much as nineteenth-century electric lights writ large betrays the tendency of every age to read the future as a fancier version of the present.

[190] {future, present, 19th century, century, future, expectation, expectations, 20th century, new media, expectations of new media, change, transition, transformation, innovation, evolution, television, telegraphy, wireless telegraphy, broadcasting, mass media, tv, electric light, light, genealogy} Transformative patterns of this kind are common the technological innovation. Apparatus intended to streamline, simplify, or otherwise enhance the conduct of familiar social routines may so reorganize them that they become new events. The lines of their evolution remain, however. Ordinarily, we think of wireless telegraphy, cinema, and telephony as the direct ancestors of mass broadcasting, but this genealogy overlooks the role of electric light in the social construction of twentieth-century mass media. The communicative capacity of electric light survives today in illuminated signs, but its most important contribution to modern mass communication was to a vocabulary of popular forms in mass entertainment spectacles and to the reorganization of traditional audiences. In that sense, the glittering television special is as much the fruit of electric light as of any other invention.

[193] {new media, theme, trend, social, boundary, boundaries, transition, future, expectations, expectation, effect, effects, imagination, imaginary} Two recurring themes about new media addressed the issue of social boundaries in transition, though with a certain indirectness. One attempted to predict technical advances in media of the future, and the other speculated about what the effects of these advances might be. The devices that social imagination constructed and then reacted to sometimes actually existed, but just as often were entirely imaginary.

[194] {new media, new, transfer, audio, auditory, visual, vision, kinesthetic, haptic, communication, expectations, expectation, imagination, imaginary, audience, time, space, presence, future, cross-cultural, culture} New media were recognized as new because they exhibited certain features. New media "truthfully transferred," in Thomas Edison's words, an increasing number of the auditory, visual, and kinesthetic details of the occasion of communication. New media also addressed expanding audiences, whether across time or space... The more any medium triumphed over distance, time, embodied presence, the more exciting it was, and the more it seemed to tread the path of the future. Such achievements were often imagined in great detail. And always, new media were thought to hail the dawning of complete cross-cultural understanding, since contact with other cultures would reveal people like those at home.

[197] {telectroscope, cross-cultural, culture, vision, visual, imaginary media} the "telectroscope," a popular but entirely imaginary invention of the late nineteenth century "by which actual scenes are made visible to people hundreds of miles away from the spot."

[200] {new media, stagnant, center, stagnant center, emotions, morals, class} Besides offering a long-deprived humanity access to its putative emotional center, another advantage of new media was to render inhabitants of that center ever less physically and morally obliged to stir from it.

[201] {utopia, retreat} [New media as utopian retreat.]

[202] {utopia, homogeneity}

[203] {phonograph, eden, bible} [Phonographs in Garden of Eden.]

[204] {voice galleries}

[208] {edison's mocking machine, mocking machine, edison}

[209] {telectroscope}

[212] {live telephone performance, performance, performances, telephone}

[213] {canada}

[214] {marconi's wireless telegraph, marconi, wireless, telegraph, wireless telegraph}

[215] {telephone pulpits, church, religion}

[216] {telephone court, court, telephone, courtroom, law, justice}

[217] {telegraphic news}

[219] {telephone election, 1896, vote, politics}

[222-231] {broadcasting, proto-broadcasting, telephone, telefon hirmondo, budapest, hungary, 1881, 1892, 1893, 1900}

[223] {broadcasting, proto-broadcasting, telephone, telefon hirmondo, budapest, hungary, 1881, 1892, 1893, 1900} Telefon Hirmondó... provided perhaps the only example of sustained and systematic programming in the nineteenth century that truly prefigures twentieth-century broadcasting systems.

[228] {broadcasting, proto-broadcasting, telephone, america, telephone herald, newark, new jersey, 1911}

[232] {social, group, technologists, nontechnologists, progress, change, novelty, criticism, technological worlds, myth, expert, public} This has been a study of how groups with competing logics of experience entertained new technological possiblities in communication in the late nineteenth century. The central players in teh drama were experts charged with constructing this particular technological world and publics who expected to live in it. Technological worlds are so much with us that we seldom question the creation myth in which technologists are champions of novelty, change, progress, but never critics. Only nontechnologists are thought occasionally to doubt the wisdom of a world that technologists have put in place. This oppostion between technologists and nontechnologists is a false one in many respects.

[232] {new media, electricity, expert, public, new world, old world, old media} Experts and publics greeted a new world of electricity by elaborating an old one.

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