April 23, 2013
When Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone on January 7, 2007, he said, “Every once in a while a revolutionary product comes along that…changes everything….Today, Apple is going to reinvent the phone.”
The iPhone has proved even more revolutionary than Jobs understood, as its role in the remarkable capture of the Boston Marathon bombers illustrated. In the wake of the bombing, the FBI asked for crowdsourcing assistance to identify suspects. The digital sites Reddit and 4chan were instantly swamped by a “general cybervibe” of shared digital information sent from iPhones and video surveillance cameras. It was a stunning interaction between citizens and law enforcement.
This interaction is currently very high on the media radar screen. In the Washington Post, Craig Timberg recently wrote about the technologies that can produce “access to unprecedented troves of video imagery” and information about location data emitted by cellphones. In their recent book The New Digital Age: Reshaping the Future of People, Nations and Business, Google executive chairman Jared Cohen and Google director of ideas Eric Schmidt describe how a camera will “zoom in on an individual’s eye, mouth and nose, and extract a ‘feature vector’” that creates a biometric signature. This signature is what law enforcement focused on following the Boston bombing, according to Schmidt and Cohen, in an excerpt from their book, published last week in the Wall Street Journal.
A media appeal from law enforcement is not new. John Walsh’s television program, “America’s Most Wanted,” is credited with capturing 1,149 fugitives between 1988 and 2011. But the stakes have sky-rocketed in the digital age, and the issue of unfiltered social media information has proved problematic. In the midst of the Boston manhunt, Alexis Madigal wrote for the Atlantic that the crowdsourcing flood revealed “well-meaning people who have not considered the moral weight” of their rush to judgment: “This is vigilantism, and it’s only the illusion that what we do online is not as significant as what we do offline. . .”
In a story on April 20th, the Associated Press reported that “Fueled by Twitter, online forums like Reddit and 4chan, smartphones, and relays of police scanners, thousands of people played armchair detectives. . . . .” The problem of inevitable mistakes, the AP noted, illustrated the unintended consequences of law enforcement “deputizing the public for help.” Reddit is a giant message board divided into subsections similar to local newspapers, except that users are the content providers. In the Boston case, users viewed their assistance as “a citizen responsibility” and engulfed the digital sites with every possible piece of “evidence.”
On the PBS News Hour April 19th, Will Oremus of Slate said that Reddit is unmediated democracy in action—a site where everyone gets to vote on what rises to the top of the page as the headlined feature. The lack of a filter means mistakes will be made, but Oremus argued that the potential for good superseded the bad. He also suggested that the Boston experience, where innocent people were momentarily tagged as suspects, illustrated how complex the learning curve is going to be.
It has certainly been a learning curve for me. I was intending to write here about a fascinating new book, Ernest Freeberg’s The Age of Edison, when I found myself scurrying around exploring “Reddit” and “4chan.” But as it happens, there are intriguing parallels between the advent of revolutionary technology a century ago and today’s media metamorphosis.
In the Gilded Age, Freeberg writes, society “witnessed mind-bending changes in communication. . .hardly imagined beforehand.” Their generation was the first “to live in a world shaped by perpetual invention,” and Edison personified the age with his contributions to the light bulb, the phonograph, and moving pictures.
As in the digital age today, the greatest impact then was not simply the invention itself but the invention’s consequences. There were no rules: For example, how should street lighting be constructed–should there be one giant arc light, or a series of lights lining the streets? Freeberg also explains how standards were developed for the use of electricity, and how professions evolved to implement those standards.
One of my favorite stories in The Age of Edison describes how electricity affected public behavior: people accustomed to lurching home from saloons in gaslight’s forgiving darkness were now exposed to public opprobrium by electricity’s illumination. Electricity, Freeberg suggests, was “a subtle form of social control.” Neighbors peering from behind curtains were the cultural antecedents of today’s surveillance cameras.
Like Steve Jobs did in the 21st century, Freeburg writes that “Edison invented a new style of invention.” But in both cases, what became important were the ramifications—the unintended consequences.
August 31, 2012
When inventor Thomas Edison first began toying with the idea of improving upon moving image technology, he filed a note with the patents office in 1888, expressing his intent. He wrote that he hoped to invent a device that would, “do for the eye what the phonograph did for the ear.” When he finally invented (with considerable help from his assistant, William Kennedy Laurie Dickson) and patented his single-camera device 115 years ago today, August 31, 1897, Edison was well on his way to launching the American film industry and even predicting America’s fascination with cats doing things on film (above).
Though Edison had received a visit from one of the early pioneers of moving pictures, Eadweard Muybridge, he turned down the opportunity to work with him, according to the Library of Congress and research from historians Charles Musser, David Robinson and Eileen Bowser. Sure, Muybridge had developed a way to use multiple cameras to capture a series of movements and then project is as a choppy but recognizable motion. But Edison didn’t think there was much potential in the multi-camera approach. Instead he labored (well, supervised others laboring) for three years to invent a single camera, the Kinetograph and single-user viewing device, the Kinetoscope, to record and view moving image in 1892.
Other than being a talented inventor, Edison also had the resources to attract other great talent, including Dickson, who moved his entire family from France to Edison’s research lab in Menlo Park, New Jersey. Smithsonian curator Ryan Lintelman explained in a 2010 podcast, “By the 1880s Edison became known as “the Wizard of Menlo Park” because these inventions that he was coming up with were so transformative that it was as if magic was involved.”
It wasn’t long after the kinetoscope’s invention that he began producing movies under his own studio, nicknamed the Black Maria because the structure that housed it resembled a police patrol car. Ever the businessman, Edison oversaw the production of star-studded shorts to help popularize his invention, including films with Annie Oakley, acts from Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show and Spanish dancer Carmencita. His subjects tended toward the sexy or the strong, proving the adage that sex sells. But one short titled The Boxing Cats (Professor Welton’s) also shows Edison’s ability to predict the insatiable market for watching cats do things, like fight each other in a tiny boxing ring.
“These first films they made for audiences were just short, simple subjects like women dancing or body builders flexing or a man sneezing or a famous couple kissing, and these early films have been called “the cinema of attractions” because they were shown as sort of these amazing glimpses of new technology rather then narrative plays on film,” explained Lintelman.
Unfortunately, the earliest surviving film from his studio is a little less titillating than the late 19th century equivalent of Brangelina kissing. Titled Edison Kinetoscopic Record of a Sneeze, January 7, 1894, or Fred Ott’s Sneeze, the film simply shows an employee hamming it up for the camera with a dramatized sneeze.
But if a man sneezes and no one hears it, is it really a sneeze? That was the dilemma Edison tried to solve as competitors began eating into his profits. In an attempt to synch sound and image, Edison added piped-in music via a phonograph to accompany the film. But the sound and image remained separate and often out of step, making it a less than enticing solution. Meanwhile, the allure of projected films that could finally entertain more than one person at a time called to businessmen in the industry. Another inventor, Thomas Armat, beat Edison to the punch. But Edison negotiated and bought the invention, changing its name from the Phantoscope to the Vitascope.
Filming news events, performances and tourism videos proved a profitable mix. But when audiences began to tire of the novelty, Edison turned to fiction-filmmaker Edwin S. Porter to create entertaining movies to be featured in the new storefront theaters known as nickelodeons.
As the popularity of these diverting films took off, Edison scrambled to own as much of the market as possible and protect his many related patents. After squaring off with a resistant competitor, Edison eventually negotiated a deal in 1908, according to the Library of Congress, that joined his company with Biograph and established a monopoly. His rise to the top, however, was short lived. Better technologies and more intriguing narratives were coming out of competing studios and though Edison continued to try to synch sound and image, his solutions were still imperfect. In 1918, Edison sold the studio and retired from his film career.
Though Hollywood is now synonymous with movie stars and big-name producers, it was actually Edison’s Black Maria in West Orange–the world’s first movie studio–that started the American film industry. Lintelman joked in his 2010 interview, “Most people can’t think of a place farther from Hollywood than New Jersey, right?” But Lintelman continued, “The American film industry was concentrated in that New Jersey, New York area from the 1890s until the 1920s. That’s when Hollywood became the movie capital of the world. Prior to that time, the most important factors were to be close to those manufacturing centers and investors in the markets. ”
Writing in an email, Lintelman, says, however, that he finds more similarities between online video culture than with Hollywood’s feature-length films. “It was a direct and democratic form of visual expression.” Viewers simply had to offer up their nickel to enjoy a brief diversion. Without audio or dialogue, the silent films could reach anyone, regardless of language. Though the subject matter could include spectacular news events or travel shots, most dealt with the daily experiences of man. “The filmmakers found humor in technological changes, transportation innovation, shifting demographics and social mores and the experience of city life,” writes Lintelman.
And viewers watched voraciously. After enjoying a kinetoscope film, people would mingle in the parlor space, discussing their favorites. With a variety of quick options in one place, viewers could create their own movie lineup and experience. “When you think about it,” Lintelman adds, “this is how we use the internet to view visual content today!”
December 14, 2011
One March morning in 2008, Carlene Stephens, curator of the National Museum of American History’s division of work and industry, was reading the New York Times when a drawing caught her eye. She recognized it as a phonautograph, a device held in the museum’s collections. Credited to a Frenchman named Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville in 1857, the phonautograph recorded sound waves as squiggles on soot-covered paper, but could not play those sounds back.
The article reported that scientists at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, California, had managed the seemingly impossible. They played back the sounds.
Using equipment housed developed in collaboration with the Library of Congress, Carl Haber and Earl Cornell, a senior scientists in the lab’s physics and engineering divisions, analyzed high resolution digital images scans of a phonautogram found in a Paris archive. (A group known as First Sounds had discovered a recording there and had sent scans of it to Haber and Cornell.) The recording was a 10-second clip of the French folk song “Au Clair de la Lune.” Made on April 9, 1860, the sound snippet predates the oldest known playable sound recording— Handel’s oratorio, made by Thomas Edison and his associates in 1888.
“When I read the article, I thought, oh my gosh,” says Stephens. The American History Museum has about 400 of the earliest audio recordings ever made. Pioneers (and competitors) Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell and Emile Berliner donated the recordings and other documentation to the Smithsonian in the late 19th century. The inventors conducted experiments from 1878 to 1898, and stashed their research notes and materials at the Smithsonian, in part to establish a body of evidence should their patents ever be disputed.
There are a few cryptic inscriptions on the wax discs and cylinders and some notes from past curators. But historians did not have the means to play them. Stephens realized that a breakthrough was at hand.
“I have been taking care of these silent recordings for decades. Maybe finally we could get some sound out,” says Stephens.
So she contacted Haber and Peter Alyea, a digital conversion specialist at the Library of Congress. Stephens called their attention to a group of recordings made in the 1880s by Alexander Graham Bell, his cousin Chichester Bell and another associate Charles Sumner Tainter. The team had created an early R&D facility at Washington, D.C.’s Dupont Circle, called Volta Laboratory. (Today, the site is home to Julia’s Empanadas at 1221 Connecticut Avenue.)
“From 1881 to 1885, they were recording sound mechanically. They recorded sound magnetically. They recorded sound optically, with light. They tried to reproduce sound with mechanical tools, also with jets of air and liquid. It was an explosion of ideas that they tried,” says Haber. “There are periods of time when a certain group of people end up in a certain place and a lot of music gets created, or art—Paris in the 1920s and ’30s. There are these magic moments, and I think that historians and scholars of technology and invention are viewing Washington in the 1880s as being one of those moments.”
Eager to hear the content, Haber and Alyea selected six recordings—some wax discs with cardboard backing, others wax on metal and glass discs with photographically recorded sound—for a pilot project.
“We tried to choose examples that highlighted the diversity of the collection,” says Haber. In the last year, they have put the recordings through their sound recovery process, and on Tuesday, at the Library of Congress, the pair shared a first listen with a small audience of researchers and journalists.
The snippets are crude and somewhat garbled, but with a little help from Haber, who has spent hours and hours studying them, those of us in the room could make out what was being said. “To be or not to be, that is the question,” declared a speaker, who proceeded to deliver a portion of Hamlet’s famous soliloquy on one disc. A male voice repeated a trill sound as a sound check of sorts and counted to six on another. From one recorded in 1884, a man enunciated the word “barometer” five times. And on yet another, a voice states the date—”It’s the 11th day of March 1885″—and repeats some verses of “Mary had a little lamb.”
In fact, during one recitation of the nursery rhyme, the recorders experience some sort of technical difficulty, made obvious by a somewhat indiscernible exclamation of frustration. “It is probably the first recorded example of someone being disappointed,” jokes Haber.
The National Museum of American History hopes to continue this partnership with Lawrence Berkeley and the Library of Congress so that more of the sound experiments captured on early recordings can be made audible. At this point, the voices on the newly revealed recordings are unknown. But Stephens thinks that as researchers listen to more, they may be able to identify the speakers. In its collection, the museum has a transcript of a recording made by Alexander Graham Bell himself. Could the inventor’s voice be on one of the 200 Volta recordings?
“It is possible,” says Stephens.
Male voice reciting opening lines of “To be, or not to be” soliloquy from Hamlet, probably 1885:
Tone; male voice counting “One, two, three, four, five, six”; two more tones; deposited at the Smithsonian in October 1881:
Male voice saying “ba-ro-me-ter,” produced on November 17, 1884:
Male voice saying the date and reciting “Mary had a little lamb,” produced on March 11, 1885:
This post was updated on December 22, 2012 to include the contributions of Earl Cornell and the group First Sounds.
September 2, 2010
Sadly, summer is whizzing by. August has come and gone, and we have yet to acknowledge National Inventors Month! So happy belated! We bring you our the Around the Mall Blog team’s “Top Ten Inventions from the National Museum of American History’s Collections.” The museum, after all, is home to the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation, which celebrates National Inventors Month every year.
1. Thomas Edison’s Incandescent Light Bulb
“The Wizard of Menlo Park” has many inventions to his credit—an electric vote recorder, the phonograph, a telephone transmitter—but his most famous was the light bulb. He scribbled more than 40,000 pages full of notes and tested more than 1,600 materials, everything from hairs from man’s beard to coconut fiber, in his attempts to find the perfect filament. In 1879, he finally landed on carbonized bamboo and created the first modern-looking light bulb—filament, glass bulb, screw base and all. The light bulb was manufactured by Corning, a leader in glass and ceramics for the last 159 years.
2. Alexander Graham Bell’s Large Box Telephone
In its collection, the NMAH has one of two telephones Alexander Graham Bell used to conduct a call from Boston to Salem on November 26, 1876. The system, which worked when sound waves induced a current in electromagnets that was conducted over wires to another telephone where the current produced audible air vibrations, was used commercially starting in 1877.
3. Abraham Lincoln’s Patent Model for a Device for Raising Boats off Sand Bars
As a 40-year-old lawyer in Illinois, Abraham Lincoln designed floats that could be employed alongside a river boat to help it avoid getting caught in shallow waters. He was granted a patent from the U.S. Patent Office on May 22, 1849. The product never came to fruition, but Lincoln remains the only U.S. president to hold a patent.
4. Sewing Machine Patent Model
Though not the first sewing machine, John Bachelder’s version, patented on May 8, 1849, was an improvement on the original. It was rigged with a leather conveyor belt that kept the fabric moving as it was being sewn. The patent was purchased by sewing machine giant I. M. Singer and became part of a pool of patents used to barter the Sewing Machine Combination, a team of three sewing machine manufacturers including the I. M. Singer Co. that propelled the industry forward.
5. Morse Daguerrotype Camera
Perhaps the first camera in the United States, this one made the trip from Paris with its owner Samuel F. B. Morse, inventor of the telegraph. Morse and French artist Louis Daguerre, who invented the daguerreotype process for photography, brainstormed invention ideas together.
(AND SOME SURPRISES…)
6. Magnavox Odyssey Video Game Unit
Months before Pong, the ping-pong game by Atari, overtook the video game scene in 1972, Magnavox Odyssey, the first home video game system, was released. The system merged traditional board games with the new video game concept by incorporating things like dice, paper money and cards. (Watch inventors Ralph Baer and Bill Harrison play a video game here, at the Smithsonian Lemelson Center’s 2009 National Inventors Month celebration.) Success, however, wasn’t in the cards. Less than 200,000 units were sold, while Pong sales skyrocketed. Baer went on to invent Simon, the electronic memory game.
7. The Rickenbacker Frying Pan, the First Electric Guitar
Musicians had been experimenting with using electricity to amplify the sound of string instruments for decades, but it was George Beauchamp and Adolph Rickenbacker who built the first commercial electric guitar around 1931. The electric guitar had its critics, who argued that it didn’t create an “authentic” musical sound, but it found its place with the rock and roll genre.
8. AbioCor Total Artificial Heart
Cardiac surgeons Laman Gray and Robert Dowling replaced patient Robert Tools diseased heart with an AbioCor Total Artificial Heart on July 2, 2001, at Jewish Hospital in Louisville, Kentucky, making it the first electro-hydraulic heart implanted in a human. The battery-powered heart is capable of pumping more than 2.5 gallons of blood a minute to the lungs and the rest of the body. The invention was in clinical trials at the time of Tools’ surgery. He only lived for five months with the artificial heart, but even that, was well beyond the experimental goal of 60 days.
9. Krispy Automatic Ring-King Junior Doughnut Machine
Used by the Krispy Kreme Doughnut Corporation in the 1950s and ’60s, the Ring-King Junior could spit out about 720 doughnuts an hour! The miraculous machine and other Krispy Kreme artifacts were donated to the museum in 1997 on the 60th anniversary of the doughnut maker.
10. And last but not least, The World’s First Frozen Margarita Machine
As we savor the last days of summer, this one had to make the list. In 2005, the museum acquired the first-ever frozen margarita machine, invented by Dallas restaurateur Mariano Martinez in 1971. Museum director Brent Glass called the invention a “classic example of the American entrepreneurial spirit.” With the advent of the machine, margaritas became as standard as chips and salsa at Tex-Mex restaurants. (Next time I have one, I shall toast Mariano!)
What’s your favorite invention represented in the museum’s collections?
Update: This post has been updated to clarify that this list reflects the editorial whims of the Around the Mall blog team and is not an official ranking created by the National Museum of American History.