We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
Imagine a technology that let you communicate with others while hiding behind a persona of your own makingthat let an older man pose as a young woman, for instance, or vice versa. Or imagine a system that allowed an ordinary person to cull news on topics of special interest, collecting it in one place for friends to share and comment on. Internet chat rooms and Web pages, right? Yes, but not only. To Lisa Gitelman, director of Catholic University’s media-studies program, the answers could just as easily be the telegraph and the scrapbook.
This is one of the unexpected lessons in the soon-to-be-published New Media, 1740-1915, edited by Gitelman and Geoffrey Pingree, an English professor at Oberlin College. Their premise is that the technologies we think of as “old”typewriters, vinyl records, eight-track tapeswere actually as cutting-edge in their day as the Internet is now, and the book’s 10 chapters seek to challenge the notion that studying new media requires studying today’s new media.
The chapter on telegraphy, for instance, explores the obscure literary genre of “telegraph fiction.” In the 19th century, telegraph operators would trade flirtatious messages during on-the-job lulls. As Internet chat-room participants have discovered in recent years, the operators learned that it was easy to pass themselves off as more attractive and charming than they were in reality. This freedomcombined with social upheavals caused by the growing presence of women on the wireinspired novels that were read avidly by legions of telegraph operators. (Apparently, market segmentation was alive and well then, too.)
Scrapbooks, for their part, offered a popular pastime for countless Americans. Old books would be pasted over with news clippings that fit the maker’s interest, then shared among friendsa communications medium slower than, but not entirely unlike, today’s Web logs.
Gitelman’s personal specialty is the phonograph, though. Before coming to Catholic University, Gitelman, 40, worked as an associate editor at the New Jersey-based Edison Papers project, and her chapter in New Media focuses on the 1878 introduction of the inventor’s phonograph, which was able to record soundsimperfectly by modern standardsby using a stylus to scribe patterns into a thin slice of tinfoil. Gitelman recounts how Thomas A. Edison and his associates traveled the country giving demonstrations, offering the recorded tinfoil impressions to the audience as souvenirs.
“I hate clichés, but it really rocked people’s worlds,” Gitelman says. “In the 19th century, speaking was the very standard of ephemerayou spoke something and it disappeared into the air. Then suddenly came Edison and his machine. You had to shout, and the recordings weren’t very permanentI’ve heard a replica, and it sounds horrible. But people were enthused about the potential. I see an incredible connection with the new media of today.”
As it happened, the phonograph eventually withered in the face of competition from later technologies. It wasn’t Edison but Emile Berliner who realized the market for prerecorded music; within 10 years of Edison’s invention, Berliner’s gramophone was fast becoming the industry standard. This example illustrates another New Media truism: “Nothing is inevitable about new media,” Gitelman says. “Success usually doesn’t depend on the machineryit has to do with a lot of contingent social and economic forces that determine where the technology goes.”
Modern-day examples, she says, include the triumph of the VHS tape over Betamax and the ongoing fight between the PC and Macintosh computer formats. The gramophone, Gitelman says, “won in part because of star power. They understood that you don’t sell the machines, you sell the records. So they got famous people to record and do advertisements for them.” Louis Jacobson