“HERE THEY ARE,” Decca Records advertised in December 1934, “your favorite stars of radio, screen, and stage—in their greatest performances of instrument and voice! … Hear them when you want—as often as you want—right in your own home.” Before the mid-twentieth century, Americans had perfected many new techniques for repeating sights and sounds at their own convenience. Uniqueness had once been the hallmark of experience. Each moment of life was supposed to be unrepeatable; the visible body and gestures, and the voice of a man, lasted during the brief span of his life and then dissolved with his death. Images of the past required the artistry of painter or sculptor; bygone actions could be recaptured only by the mimicry of the actor. The most vivid accounts of the dead were the work of men of letters.
Now without anyone having so intended it, a host of inventions and innovations, large and small, were beginning to add up to a whole new grasp on past experience. The terminus of human life was, of course, still there, but the content of the years of life was transformed. And the range of sights and sounds that any man could enjoy in a single lifetime was vastly widened.
THE DECISIVE INNOVATION was photography. The story of the rise and perfection and simplification of photography has often been told, but photography as a transformer of experience has not been given its due. Such repeatable experience as was possible in Old World cultures had been mainly through the aristocratic arts of literature, painting, sculpture, and music, or through the popular but limited arts of minstrelsy, folklore, folk art, and folk music. Only language itself, or the ritual and liturgy of church and state, had tied people to the past by repetitions of word and gesture.
Photography took the first giant step toward democratizing the repeatable experience. This it did by transcending language and literature so that anybody, without even needing to be literate, could preserve at will the moments of experience for future repetition. Again the basic theoretical discoveries that would make this possible came from the Old World, and once again Americans were ingenious and resourceful in finding ways to apply these discoveries, in organizing, democratizing, and diffusing their uses.
For a full half-century after the Frenchman L. J. M. Daguerre made public his daguerrotype process in 1839, and even after the Englishman W. H. Fox Talbot had devised a way to make many positives from a single negative, photography remained an esoteric technique. On seeing Daguerre’s photographs, the French artist Paul Delaroche exclaimed, “From today painting is dead!” Photography was already beginning to take over and transform some of the traditional roles of the artist, but photography in America would reach out far beyond the former domain of the artist.
By the time of the Civil War, many Americans had begun to feel the impact of photography. Even before the war, Mathew Brady’s photographic portrait studios in New York and Washington were doing a thriving business. Then, during the Civil War, and soon thereafter, photographs by Brady and Alexander Gardner and others were exhibited in galleries, sold in books, and reproduced in newspapers. They brought to Americans a more vivid and more realistic view of that war than of any that had happened before. While action photography was not yet possible, photographs with startling and novel authenticity did portray the war’s architectural and human debris.
But photography was still cumbersome and complicated. Traveling across the battlefields, Brady needed a special wagon to carry his equipment. Until about 1880, the photographer’s equipment included (in addition to the camera, several lenses, and a tripod) bottles of different solutions for coating, sensitizing, developing, and fixing his negatives, besides glass plates, dishes, measures, funnels, a pail to carry rinsing water, and sometimes even a supply of water, and (so that he could perform the essential chemical operations on the spot) a portable dark-tent. The equipment even for a single day commonly weighed more than a hundred pounds, which the photographer who did not have a photographic wagon had to push around in a special wheelbarrow, or “photographic perambulator.”
“Wet plates” made all this necessary. As long as the complicated wet-plate collodion process was the best and fastest way of making photographs, the photographer had to make his own photographic plates on the spot, and had to develop them instantly after they were exposed. The key to this system was a solution of collodion (guncotton dissolved in ether) containing potassium iodide, which, just before the picture taking, was poured onto a glass plate that was tilted back and forth until the solution formed an even, sticky coat. The sticky glass plate was then made sensitive to light by immersion in a silver nitrate solution. The picture had to be taken while the plate was still wet, because as the collodion dried its light-sensitivity was progressively lost; for this reason, too, the picture actually had to be developed before the glass plate had dried. This meant, of course, that the photographer had to carry his whole laboratory with him. And also that you could not be a photographer unless you were something of a photographic chemist adept at preparing as well as developing your photographic plates. Since the papers for making prints were not very sensitive, photographs were seldom enlarged, and therefore serious photographers had to use large plates (12 by 16 inches was not unusual), which were heavy to carry and required a bulky camera. Despite ingenious devices, no way was found for the photographer to manage without his dark-tent.
Photography could not become universal until there was some simpler method of taking a picture. By about 1880, English chemists had found a way to coat a glass plate with light-sensitive chemicals that would not lose their sensitivity when dry. Soon commercially produced glass plates were on the market. These “dry plates” could be used in a camera without any special chemical preparation on the spot by the photographer. But the glass plates still required were heavy, fragile, and hard to ship.
CENTURIES OF CHEMICAL PROGRESS in the Old World had been required to make photography possible at all, but the transformation of photography into a popular, universal medium had to await one extremely practical, and apparently trivial, improvement. The missing link in the chain of progress toward democratizing photography was the invention of a new artificial substance, to be called “celluloid.”
John Wesley Hyatt, an unsung American hero, was the son of a blacksmith in rural New York. In 1853, at the age of sixteen, he went west to Illinois, where he started life as a printer, and at twenty-four he had begun his inventing career with a new way of making solid emery wheels to sharpen kitchen knives. Then he heard of a $10,000 prize offered by a New York manufacturer for some new material which would be a satisfactory substitute for ivory in the making of billiard balls. Hyatt spent his nights and Sundays trying to solve the problem, and he finally succeeded by combining paper flock, shellac, and collodion, and won the prize. When he noticed that a removable “artificial skin” was left when the collodion dried, he began to look for still other new materials. Since he was not a chemist, he did not realize that he might easily have blown himself up by heating gun-cotton (nitrocellulose) under pressure, and he had not been discouraged by the earlier failures of English plastics chemists, because he did not even know of them. Another incentive for his experiments was the interest of dentists (plagued by the high price charged by the “rubber monopoly”) in finding a cheaper substitute for rubber in molding dentures.
In 1873 Hyatt invented and registered the name “celluloid.” What he had invented was actually not a new combination of chemicals but a new way of molding the plastic and making it stay hard. For some years Hyatt used celluloid only for making solid objects.
Hyatt went on to a versatile career of invention. By 1882 he and his brother had perfected a new system of water filtration. The previous systems had brought the water to a tank where coagulants were added to remove the impurities, which after twelve hours would settle to the bottom. Hyatt’s ingenious scheme added the coagulants to the water while it was on the way to the filter, and thus removed the need for the large tanks and the long settling time. He invented a new kind of sugar-cane mill, which was cheaper to run and which produced a cane dry enough to serve as fuel. Besides an improved sewing machine which could make fifty lock stitches at once, a new way of making school slates, and a method of solidifying wood for bowling balls and golf-club heads, he devised a roller bearing which General Motors eventually made the basis for many of its improvements in the automobile.
The opportunity for Hyatt’s celluloid to help transform the American consciousness came from the collaborating talents of another upstate New Yorker who combined a bent for invention with a talent for organization and for marketing. George Eastman, the son of a penmanship teacher who started the first commercial college in Rochester, began clerking in a bank and became so interested in photography that in 1877, when he was making only $1,500 a year, he spent $94 on a photographic outfit. Seeing that the new “dry plates” would make possible a whole new market for photographic equipment, within two years Eastman had invented and patented a new machine for coating the glass plates. He saw, too, that the perfection of dry-plate photography would be more than merely a convenience for professional photographers, because now, for the first time, the taking of a picture could be separated from the making and the developing of the plate. But he also saw that a popular market for photography would have to await a substitute for the heavy, breakable, hard-to-ship glass plates. Until the 1880’s, of course (because photographs were commonly made on emulsion-coated glass), photography was not especially associated with the word “film.” What Eastman needed was some flexible, light, and unbreakable substance that could be coated with the photographic emulsion. In 1884 Eastman patented a way of coating strips of paper so that they would work in a camera, and from this starting point he initiated the popular revolution in photography.
To dramatize the novelty of his kind of camera, he decided to make up a word that would be short, distinctive, and (looking toward a world market) pronounceable in any language. It is said that he started with “K,” the first letter of his mother’s maiden name, and finally came up with “Kodak.” Eastman registered the trademark “Kodak” in 1888 and put his new camera on the market. A marvel of compactness and simplicity, his little black box was about the size of the later familiar “Brownie” box camera. “The Kodak,” Eastman’s first advertisement read, “is the smallest, lightest and simplest of all Detective Cameras—for the ten operations necessary with most Cameras to make one exposure, we have only 3 simple movements. No focusing. No finder required. Size 3½ by 3¾ by 6½ in. Makes 100 Exposures. Weight 35 oz.”
The camera had no focusing apparatus and only a single speed on the shutter. Of course, since the camera also had no finder, the photographer might not be able to include precisely what he wanted in the picture, but on the other hand, he did not have to worry about adjusting or focusing his apparatus. Eastman had made everybody into a photographer. And his Kodak flourished on the slogan “You press the button—we do the rest.”
Eastman shrewdly had made an additional selling point of the smallness of his Kodak by calling it a “detective camera.” Other manufacturers had already put on the market an assortment of smaller cameras camouflaged in the shape of opera glasses, paper parcels, luggage, books, and watches; some were made to be hidden in hats or behind neckties. These were called “detective” cameras because, in contrast to the old large boxes, they were supposed to be able to take a picture surreptitiously, as a detective would. There was something intriguing about this idea, but actually these other products were little more than toys.
Eastman’s was a “detective camera,” too. But unlike the others, his was inexpensive for its day, and it really worked! What he offered Americans was a photographic system as remarkable in its own way as the organizing achievements of nineteenth-century fur traders or of twentieth-century assembly-line builders. The $25 which Eastman charged for one of his simple black boxes included the first roll of film, together with the processing of all its one hundred pictures. When the owner had used up the roll, he sent the whole camera to the factory. Then the factory sent back his camera (loaded with a new roll of film, for $10) and the mounted prints of all his successful pictures. George Eastman’s system, like Eli Whitney’s interchangeable system, was a substitute for skill. To any American with $25 (however ignorant of chemistry or photography) Eastman now offered the power to make pictures.
The weak link in Eastman’s system was the film itself. At the Kodak factory, the emulsion bearing the image had to be stripped from the paper, then pressed into a sheet of clear gelatin, and dried. To avoid this delicate operation there was need for a better film material, preferably one that was both flexible and transparent. Celluloid, which had been on the market for fifteen years, would prove to be the solution to the problem. While Eastman was one of the first to discover this fact, others too grasped the possibility and entered the race for a practical film. Until this time Hyatt’s celluloid had been used only for solid objects. Then, in 1888 a Philadelphia photographic-plate manufacturer asked Hyatt to produce sheets of clear celluloid with a uniform thickness of 1/100 inch, which he then coated with the photographic emulsion. This celluloid was still too thick and inflexible for roll film.
The first application for a patent on transparent roll film made of celluloid came from the Reverend Hannibal W. Goodwin, a sixty-five-year-old Episcopal minister of Newark, New Jersey, who had been trying to find some material that was better than glass for the photographic illustrations of Scriptural stories he was making for Sunday Schools. After ten years’ labor, on May 2, 1887, he applied for a patent for a “Photographic Pellicule.” Meanwhile Eastman had set one of his researchers to work, and two years later Eastman received his own patent for the “manufacture of flexible photographic films.” There followed the familiar lengthy litigation over patent rights. And it was fifteen years (just before Goodwin’s death) before Goodwin actually received his patent. During this time the energetic Eastman had been manufacturing celluloid film on a vast scale. He was now producing nearly 90 percent of all roll film, and he had monopolized the world market.
With his new celluloid roll film, easily loaded and easily developed (no need any more for the delicate stripping operation), Eastman opened up the world of amateur photography. The novel features of the Kodak, as an English historian observed, “enabled the camera, like the bicycle, to enrich the leisure hours of the many.” Soon millions of Americans were snapping pictures, and camera clubs sprang up all over the world. While the earlier photography had flourished on the making of studio portraits and the occasional outdoor photographing of significant scenes by professionals, the new popular photography found new subjects. What had once been advertised as the “Royal Road to Drawing” now became the democratic highway to art. Everyman could be his own artist. Years before, when Oliver Wendell Holmes saw Brady’s realistic “stereographs” of Civil War battlefields, he had called the camera “the mirror with a memory.” Now anyone could provide himself with such a mirror, so that his everyday experience could be captured for visual repetition at any time in the future. Now, instead of merely photographing persons or scenes that were especially memorable or historic, Americans would photograph at random and then remember the scenes because they had been photographed. Photography became a device for making experience worth remembering.
ON OCTOBER 8, 1888, A statement was filed with the Patent Office by Thomas A. Edison:
I am experimenting upon an instrument which does for the eye what the phonograph does for the ear, which is the recording and reproduction of things in motion, and in such a form as to be both cheap, practical and convenient. This apparatus I call a Kinetoscope, “moving view.” … The invention consists in photographing continuously a series of pictures occurring at intervals … and photographing these series of pictures in a continuous spiral on a cylinder or plate in the same manner as sound is recorded on a phonograph.
Soon after beginning work on his Kinetoscope, Edison made certain basic discoveries. He found, for example, that while his recording phonograph had to run continuously to provide a record of continuous sound, a camera record of pictures of motion would have to run intermittently so that the phenomenon of persistence of vision would give the viewer the illusion of motion. It had to be possible, therefore, to take pictures at rapid intervals, and then show them successively without a blur. But at first Edison had been dominated by the analogy with his rudimentary phonograph, which then worked by recording sound on a cylinder. Tiny pictures arranged in series on a cylinder were viewed directly through a magnifying lens.
Edison very early sensed the importance of celluloid. The perfection of a feasible camera and projector that would show moving pictures of considerable duration depended on finding a suitably flexible substance for the film. It is hard to imagine how Edison could have made his movie camera without celluloid, or something like it. When he first saw the emulsion-coated sheets of celluloid, which were still too rigid to be handled in rolls, he wrapped some sheets around the big cylinder of his Kinetoscope machine. But with celluloid of suitable characteristics he hoped to be able to abandon his cylinder design and (as had been impossible with glass plates) somehow run continuous strips of film directly through his machine.
Edison was no longer working on a “phonograph arrangement” (as Eastman had called Edison’s earlier efforts, because they were so closely modeled on the phonograph), but on an entirely new type of camera for taking and projecting moving pictures. When he heard of Eastman’s improved roll film, he urged Eastman to help him make a motion-picture camera by producing the flexible film in long strips. And when Edison’s assistant, in late 1889, brought him the first fifty-foot strip, Edison, with a “seraphic smile,” shouted, “That’s it—we’ve got it—now work like hell!”
With the new strip film Edison made his first working Kinetoscope, which was the grandfather of all later motion-picture machines. Positive prints on strip film were rolled from one spool to another inside a cabinet while the spectator looked directly at the illuminated film through a magnifying lens in a fixed eyepiece in a hole in the cabinet. This was a peep show for only one person at a time. The screen was yet to come, but the basic ideas were there. When Edison applied for a patent on an “Apparatus for Exhibiting Photographs of Moving Objects” in August 1891, he still made no mention of a projecting apparatus or a white screen. In any case, the photographs he had been using were so crude that they would not bear magnifying and projecting. Edison still assumed that the whole entertainment future of moving pictures would be like that of the phonograph, which was then used by individuals who inserted a coin in a machine to hear their favorite tune. Edison, “The Man of a Thousand Ideas,” was still so casual about this peep-show toy that when his lawyers advised him to take out European patents at a cost of $150, he refused because, he said, “It isn’t worth it.”
While Edison sometimes misjudged the commercial promise of his ideas, he did have the inventor’s genius for recognizing the essence of a problem and so seeing the simple solution. He showed this in his approach to moving pictures by intuitively avoiding the blind alleys which had already brought modest fame to others. English and French inventors, whose work Edison knew, had tried to record motion by placing numerous cameras along the line of movement, each photographing a successive scene. Eadweard Muybridge, an English-born photographer working in California, had created a world-wide sensation in 1878 with his series of pictures published as “The Horse in Motion.” He had first taken these in order to satisfy a whim of former Governor Leland Stanford of California, who wanted to advertise his prize trotter, Occident, and he incidentally answered an old question by proving that a galloping horse actually had all his feet off the ground at certain moments. Muybridge’s work had stimulated a French professor of physiology who was interested in animal locomotion to invent a camera which would take a series of exposures on a single glass plate and so photograph the motion from a single point of view. Edison made his crucial simplifying decision when he determined not to follow the path of Muybridge. Instead of making a series of motion photographs from different points of view, he decided, following the French professor’s hint, to devise a machine that would photograph motion from a single point of view.
Edison’s other elementary insight (which now seems so obvious as hardly to be an insight at all) was to imagine a simple unified system; that is, an arrangement which would somehow make use of the very same film on which the moving pictures were recorded as the moving pictures to be viewed. Could a series of photographs that had been taken on a single film somehow provide the pictures to be viewed in motion? For a feasible motion-picture system this idea was as crucial as Eastman’s idea of separating picture taking from picture developing had been in popularizing still photography. In Edison’s scheme, then, what a single camera saw and recorded was precisely what the spectator would see.
Edison boldly adopted celluloid film in a standard width for both cameras and projectors. Then he added another marvelously simple idea, never before used on photographic film: he perforated the edge of the film. The two tiny rectangular perforations which he punched on each side of each picture solved many problems at once. By using two toothed wheels, one on each side of the film to be exposed or to be projected, Edison could now produce the controlled intermittent motion of the film which his predecessors had been unable to provide and which was required to give the viewer the illusion of motion. The Edison-designed film became the standard. While railroad gauges varied throughout the world, while some nations used Fahrenheit and others Centigrade, while mankind could not all agree on a system of measuring land or of weighing potatoes, Edison’s 35-millimeter film would rule the world. In this there was a poetic appropriateness, for movies were the American invention which, more than any other before, focused the vision of the world. And motion pictures became the great democratic art, which, naturally enough, was the characteristically American art.
THE TECHNOLOGY OF repeatable experience was self-propagating. Each step taken toward capturing, recording, and making replayable another aspect of experience opened the way and created a demand for still another improvement and still newer techniques. Edison’s own interest in motion pictures had been awakened by his determination to use photography, along with the phonograph, to make talking pictures. And the phonograph, even more than the camera, would be a product of American energy and ingenuity. Perhaps this was because sound was a simpler phenomenon than sight. The problem of recording sound was essentially mechanical. It required very little new theory, and very little chemistry.
There are few modern inventions of comparable importance which in their first making owed as much to a single man as did the phonograph. Others abroad were conceiving the possibility of a machine to record and replay sounds, but it was Edison who made the first practical talking machine. He had been led toward the phonograph by his work on an instrument to record and repeat telegraph dots and dashes. Then, in 1877, after he had invented a transmitter for Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone, Edison became worried that the high cost of telephones might limit their use. He thought that many more people would benefit from the telephone if there could be what he called a “telephone repeater.” Edison’s notion was that if somehow a person could record his spoken message, then the record could be taken to a central station where it could be replayed and transmitted to the addressee over a telephone. In this way even a person who could not afford a telephone might still send a message in his own voice. When Edison had his inspiration for the shape of the machine, he made a model. It was a rotating, grooved metal cylinder around which a piece of tin foil was wrapped to record the sounds. Into the machine Edison shouted the verses of “Mary Had a Little Lamb”; then the machine played back Edison’s voice to Edison and his assistants. “I was never so taken aback in all my life,” he recalled. “Everybody was astonished. I was always afraid of things that worked the first time.” Edison applied for his patent in December 1877, and received it within two months—an unusually brief time, because the patent officials could find in their files nothing remotely resembling this device.
The news of this latest example of Edison’s wizardry created a sensation. Around the country in public halls the machine was demonstrated as a novelty. A single “exhibition” phonograph brought in more than $1,800 in one week in Boston, where people gladly paid admission to hear a machine that could talk in any language, that could bark like a dog, crow like a cock, and cough “so believably that physicians in the audience could instinctively begin to write prescriptions.” In the North American Review for June 1878, Edison forecast ten uses for his phonograph:
1. Letter writing, and all kinds of dictation without the aid of a stenographer.
2. Phonographic books, which will speak to blind people without effort on their part.
3. The teaching of elocution.
4. Music.—The phonograph will undoubtedly be liberally devoted to music.
5. The family record; preserving the sayings, the voices, and the last words of the dying members of the family, as of great men.
6. Music boxes, toys, etc.—A doll which may speak, sing, cry or laugh may be promised our children for the Christmas holidays ensuing.
7. Clocks, that should announce in speech the hour of the day, call you to lunch, send your lover home at ten, etc.
8. The preservation of language by reproduction of our Washingtons, our Lincolns, our Gladstones.
9. Educational purposes; such as preserving the instructions of a teacher so that the pupil can refer to them at any moment; or learn spelling lessons.
10. The perfection or advancement of the telephone’s art by the phonograph, making that instrument an auxiliary in the transmission of permanent records.
For more than fifteen years Edison insisted that his Number 1 use—for dictating letters—was the only one likely to find a wide market. With scant musical knowledge or sensitivity himself (Edison was partially deaf), at first he found it hard to believe it would be profitable to mass-produce the recordings of musical performances. Nevertheless, by 1894 Edison had decided to try to promote the phonograph for entertainment, and he had begun designing an inexpensive machine to sell to everybody. In 1897 he made a machine that sold for $20. But for some time, the most popular use of the phonograph was in public places for machines that played a record for a nickel.
Edison’s phonograph cylinders were inconvenient and expensive to reproduce. They were to the phonograph what the glass plate was to the camera. The popularizing of the phonograph and a mass market for recordings would await the invention of a new design and new materials.
This problem was not solved by Edison himself, but by Emile Berliner, the music-loving son of a Talmudic scholar in Hanover, Germany, who emigrated to the United States at the age of eighteen. Although he had only a grade-school education, he found work in a scientific laboratory where he began studying acoustics and electricity. Before Berliner was twenty-six he had invented a telephone transmitter which was superior to the one that Alexander Graham Bell had exhibited at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition in 1876, based on a new principle that later made possible the microphone. In 1878 Berliner sold his telephone invention to the Bell Company for a large sum; then, turning his attention to the phonograph, he developed a new way of recording.
Edison’s original phonograph operated on the “hill-and-dale” method. The sound caused the recording needle to vibrate up and down and made vertical grooves of varying depths; these were the movements which, when replayed, reproduced the sound for the listener. As the wax phonograph cylinder was rotated, the needle followed this groove. In order to keep the needle and sound box moving along the length of the cylinder to follow the groove of Edison’s rotating wax cylinder, a special screw mechanism was required.
Berliner simplified both the recording and the reproducing machines, and incidentally made easier the mass production of records. Instead of a cylinder, Berliner used a flat disk. And instead of the up-and-down movement of the needle in Edison’s “hill-and-dale” system, Berliner recorded his sound with a needle’s sideways zigzag. This scheme, which Berliner had working successfully by 1888, proved to have many advantages. The need for a special screw mechanism was removed, since the spiral groove on the revolving platter automatically kept the needle moving along at the proper speed. Disks, compared with cylinders, were simpler and easier to reproduce, and more convenient to store.
None of these advances could have democratized the phonograph without some inexpensive way of duplicating the disks. And Berliner soon supplied this, too. Instead of making the master record on an all-wax plate, he used a disk of zinc covered with wax. After the music was recorded on this wax surface, acid was applied to etch the characteristic zigzags into the zinc. And this provided the “master” from which duplicates could be made. A metal casting (or negative matrix) was made of the original record, and then stamped into a suitable material, leaving the impression of the original. In this way thousands of duplicates could be made from a single original recording. It was still necessary to find a suitable material for the duplicates, but after six years of experiment, Berliner succeeded in that too. He used hard rubber, and then made a new durable material from shellac. At first these were called “plates,” but by 1896 they were known by the new name of “record.” On Berliner’s inventions, and on his simplification of the phonograph and its records, the vast American record industry would be founded. This was not the end of Berliner’s ingenuity or imagination. In 1919 when he was nearly seventy, this remarkable man helped design a helicopter that actually flew.
Berliner’s “Gramophone” (the trademark for his invention) awakened the imagination of the twenty-nine-year-old owner of a small machine shop in Camden, New Jersey, to whom Berliner had taken his primitive machine to improve its motor. “It sounded like a partially educated parrot with a sore throat and a cold in the head,” Eldridge Johnson recalled, “but the little wheezy instrument caught my attention and held it fast and hard.” It was Johnson’s craftsmanship and production know-how which, by 1897, had transformed the expensive “partially educated parrot” into the mass-produced “Improved Gramophone.” Before long “His Master’s Voice” made the irrelevant image of a black-and-white fox terrier listening to Johnson’s machine one of the leading images in American iconography. Johnson founded the Victor Talking Machine Company, which helped create, and then for a while dominated, this new market. An unpredicted advantage of the disk appeared in 1904, when an enterprising New Yorker started a German company with the novel idea of stamping a record with grooves on both sides.
“THE MENACE OF MECHANICAL MUSIC,” in Appleton’s Magazine for September 1906, was a blast against the newly repeatable experience by one of the nation’s most popular composers. John Philip Sousa, son of a Portuguese immigrant, had composed the International Fantasy for Offenbach’s orchestra at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition in 1876, and as conductor of the United States Marine Band from 1880 to 1892 was to the march (some said) what Johann Strauss was to the waltz. Financed by a musical impresario, he formed Sousa’s Band, performed at the Chicago Columbian Exposition of 1893, and became rich and famous by regular tours around the United States. Sales of the sheet music for his most famous composition, “Stars and Stripes Forever” (composed in 1897), brought him about $300,000. “I foresee a marked deterioration in American music and musical taste,” Sousa warned, “an interruption in the musical development of the country, and a host of other injuries to music in its artistic manifestations, by virtue—or rather by vice—of the multiplication of the various music-reproducing machines.”
Exercising his considerable imagination, Sousa conjured up the future horrors of “musical automatics.” Going on from the menace of the player piano, he heard “the exclamation of the little boy who rushed into his mother’s room with the appeal: ‘O mamma, come into the drawing-room; there is a man in there playing the piano with his hands!’”
There was a time when the pine woods of the north were sacred to summer simplicity…. But even now the invasion of the north has begun, and the ingenious purveyor of canned music is urging the sportsman, on his way to the silent places with gun and rod, tent and canoe, to take with him some disks, cranks, and cogs to sing to him as he sits by the firelight, a thought as unhappy and incongruous as canned salmon by a trout brook.
In the prospective scheme of mechanical music, we shall see man and maiden in a light canoe under the summer moon upon an Adirondack lake with a gramophone caroling love songs from amidships. The Spanish cavalier must abandon his guitar and serenade his beloved with a phonograph under his arm…. Never again will the soldier hear the defiant call of the bugle to battle, and the historical lines must be changed to:
“Gentlemen of the French guards, turn on your phonographs first.”
And the future d’Auteroches will reply:
“Sir, we will never turn on our phonographs first; please to turn yours first.”
Sousa was outraged by the prospect that the authentic, spontaneous voice of man’s soul should be hampered by “a machine that tells the story day by day, without variation, without soul, barren of the joy, the passion, the ardor that is the inheritance of man alone.” And he asked, “When a mother can turn on the phonograph with the same ease that she applies to the electric light, will she croon her baby to slumber with sweet lullabys, or will the infant be put to sleep by machinery? Children are naturally imitative, and if, in their infancy, they hear only phonographs, will they not sing, if they sing at all, in imitation and finally become simply human phonographs—without soul or expression?” Sousa finally observed that, in 1906, the copyright laws appeared to give no protection to the composer when his work was sold on records. And if these new machines should deprive composers of their reward, would musicians still go on composing?
The 1909 copyright law provided protection for composers, and pressure by the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (founded in 1914) succeeded in procuring royalties. Before the third decade of the twentieth century, the nation was flooded with “musical automatics.” By 1914 more than 500,000 phonographs were being produced each year, and five years later the figure reached 2 ¼ million. In 1921 the annual production of records exceeded 100 million; in the post-World War II year of 1947, over 400 million records were sold. Improvements in the technique of recording (with an electrical in place of a mechanical or “acoustic” method, by 1925) and reproducing, and improvements in the fidelity of the sound, increased the demand and before long produced an exacting and sophisticated new audience for recorded sound.
The new techniques which the British Coastal Command had required in World War II for the training records they made to illustrate the difference between the sounds of German and of British submarines eventually produced “full frequency range reproduction” (ffrr), and set a new standard of fidelity for reproduced music. Then in 1948 came the long-playing microgroove disk, which slowed down the speed from 78 to 33⅓ revolutions per minute and increased the playing time from four to twenty-three minutes.
Just as the Kodak made every man his own artist, now with the phonograph every man became his own musician. And so the vaudeville joke: “Do you play on the piano?” “No, but I do play on the phonograph.” The phonograph was used, of course, to spread the pleasures of the classical-music repertoire. But it gave a new incentive to the makers of popular music. Formerly the famed music makers had been those who composed or performed ceremonial or symphonic or operatic or chamber-music works under the patronage of wealthy aristocrats. Now the great American public could become the patron. Music was being democratized, not only because the nation’s millions could now enjoy music once reserved for a few, but also because the millions now commanded the most profitable musical market, had a new power to shape musical taste, a way of making it worth a composer’s or performer’s while to give the millions what they wanted.
Without the phonograph, it is difficult to imagine how American popular music, before the era of radio, could have sent its sounds around the world. In May 1917 Victor turned out their first “jass” record—“the latest thing in the development of music”—a blues and a one-step played by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band. The fat profits of the record companies in the early 1920’s, as we have seen, were explained mainly by the annual sales of millions of jazz records. Never before had a form of music so permeated a vast nation, or become so universal an influence in the daily life of a whole society. “Does Jazz Put the Sin in Syncopation?” was being asked by an August 1921 article in the Ladies’ Home Journal. And the National Music Chairman of the General Federation of Women’s Clubs denounced jazz—
that expression of protest against law and order, that bolshevik element of license striving for expression in music…. Dancing to Mozart minuets, Strauss waltzes and Sousa two-steps certainly never led to the corset check-room, which holds sway in hotels, clubs, and dance halls. Nor would the girl who wore corsets in those days have been dubbed “old ironsides” and left a disconsolate wallflower in a corner of the ballroom…. Such music has become an influence for evil.
The phonograph now made popular fashions in music possible on a new scale. By the mid-1950’s the test of a musical celebrity was how many “golden records” of at least one-million circulation he had turned out. The phonograph was making a commonplace of musical classics. While the fortunes of the “top ten” popular records themselves became news as the ratings changed every week, it was now finally possible in everybody’s living room to revive the best music of earlier centuries. “This mechanical civilization of ours,” Jacques Barzun observed in 1954, “has performed a miracle … it has, by mechanical means, brought back to life the whole repertory of Western music…. Formerly, a fashion would bury the whole musical past except a few dozen works arbitrarily selected…. the whole literature of one of the arts has sprung into being—it is like the Renaissance rediscovering the ancient classics and holding them fast by means of the printing press.”
The paradoxes of repeatable experience were nowhere more dramatic. A record that was in the top ten one week might become unsalable a few weeks later. Yet in 1954 Americans could find in their record stores five unabridged versions of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, ten of Mozart’s D Minor Piano Concerto, twenty-one versions of Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet or of Beethoven’s Eroica. The machines that brought a vast new stock of repeatable experience into everyone’s living room or automobile had the power both to enrich musical experience and to trivialize it.
Which force was running stronger? In scores of new ways, the record makers enlivened the common experience with new categories of musical experience and actually brought novel forms of music into being. In 1956 the Broadway production of My Fair Ladywas entirely financed by the Columbia Broadcasting System with a view to the exclusive rights to sell the records. Their investment proved fully justified by the unprecedented sales of five million of the original-cast albums. After that it was common for Broadway musicals to be financed by record companies which hoped to recoup their investment by selling the repeated experience on records.
When music became only another, universally accessible form of repeatable experience, it lost much of its distinctiveness as an experience. Music then was only another element in the atmosphere and the environment, like the temperature, the humidity, or the illumination. By 1960 the new techniques were being used to make music of any and every kind ubiquitous. “We don’t sell music,” a spokesman for Muzak, the most prosperous seller of piped-in sound, declared, “we sell programing. We believe that the best results are attained when you consider the factors of time, environment and activity.” Before the 1950’s were out, Muzak sound conditioning could be heard in (among other places) the Yankee Stadium, Fenway Park, Slenderella Reducing Salons, cemeteries in Los Angeles and San Angelo, Texas, a Kansas City puppet factory, a Chicago sausage plant, pet hospitals, the vaults of the Federal Reserve banks, an olive-stuffing plant in Cincinnati, a uranium company in Denver, and under water in the swimming pool at Eaton’s Motel in Hamilton, Ohio. When “music” was everywhere, was it music any more? Were listeners really listening? Did Americans really know whether or not they were listening?
THE CAPACITY OF the camera and the phonograph to make experience repeatable was still limited by the time required to develop the film or to manufacture the record that could be replayed. The coming of “instant replay”—techniques for recording experience in a form that was immediately replayable—was another decisive step in dissolving the uniqueness of an experience.
The crucial new idea was magnetic recording. If sound could be transformed into magnetic impulses and a wire could be magnetized a little piece at a time, then the wire would record the sound, which could immediately be played back simply by transforming the magnetic impulses into sound again. A device to accomplish this was the invention of Valdemar Poulsen, a young Danish engineer who patented it first in Denmark in 1898, then in the United States two years later. The whole idea seemed to contradict the current experience with magnets. For example, it was common knowledge that when a bar magnet was broken into little magnets, all the little magnets would be equally magnetized, each with its two poles; and if they were stuck back together again, the result would be only one magnet. Could it be possible, then, to magnetize not a whole bar, but just one spot on a wire? Perhaps this could be done by drawing the wire rapidly past the electromagnet so that different spots would be magnetized to a different degree. If this could somehow be managed there would be obvious advantages over all the other known kinds of recording: a magnetic recording could be used countless times without a loss in acoustical quality, and the recording material could be used again and again simply by demagnetizing. Poulsen called his device the “telegraphone,” and with it won the Grand Prix at the Paris Exposition of 1900, where it was as sensational as the telephone had been in Philadelphia in 1876.
When the American Telegraphone Company proved a financial failure, the idea of magnetic recording seemed to be dead, and it was not resurrected for two decades. In Poulsen’s original design the recording wire had to travel so fast that enormous quantities of wire were required, and rewinding it took so long that it caused a delay in playback; and also the playback level was too low for practical use. But the United States Naval Research Laboratory continued its researches with the result that tape began to replace wire in the 1930’s. During World War II, magnetic recording was revived and exploited for its obvious advantages under extremes of heat, cold, and vibration when disk recording was not feasible. Wire-recording devices were soon compacted into pocket size. By the end of the war, magnetic recording had been proven superior to disk recording for many purposes. A steel tape, it was found, could be replayed a hundred thousand times without measurable deterioration; improvements in amplification and in recording materials such as homogeneous paper and plastic tape with magnetic coating promised a new versatility.
The magnetic recording of visual images was more complicated, but it came soon enough, hastened by the rise of television. Immediate video playback would not only provide the viewer with instant images of what had just happened; it meant that the producer of a program could monitor pictures while he was taking them. But the earliest video-tape recorders posed problems similar to those of sound tape: they ran at excessive speeds and used too much tape. By 1956 a video recorder was developed that ran at the same speed as sound recorders. The next year the first practical video-tape recorder was manufactured by RCA and Ampex, and came into general use; although it gave a sharp image, the recording apparatus was cumbersome. By the mid-1960’s the improved “helical scan recorder” offered a less sharp image, but used a light and portable recording machine that could be taken anywhere.
By the 1960’s, “instant replay” had become commonplace. Americans watching a boxing match, a horse race, or a baseball or football game could, at the pleasure of the producer, see any moment replayed any number of times. But tragedy and melodrama could also be replayed. On November 24, 1963, video tape showing Jack Ruby shooting Lee Harvey Oswald, the assassin of President Kennedy, was reshown within hours across the nation.
Ever since the advent of radio, Americans had listened in on the excitement at Times Square as the old year ebbed. The American’s new sense of time was symbolized on New Year’s Eve, December 31, 1971, and reported nostalgically in The New Yorker’s Talk of the Town:
The holy moment came: Lombardo counted backward “Nine, eight, seven, six, five…,” the glowing ball atop the Allied Chemical Building fell, the faithful little miracle had occurred. Horns, shouting, television patterns and spirals, “Auld Lang Syne.” Then, incredibly, the whole half-minute was replayed in instant replay. “Seven, six, five, four …” and the same horns silently blew and the same spirals wildly flickered, and we seemed to be being asked to inspect some nuance in the event. Had it been a quarterback sneak? A double reverse? Had something replayable indeed occurred? If not, was the second time less real than the first? Were we insane? Or was the replayer? Pondering such bottomless questions, we curled up in our small fever and fell numbly into 1972.
Home tape recorders soon gave the American consumer his opportunity to relive at will any of his personally experienced moments. Families gathering at birthdays, Thanksgiving, or Christmas were no longer driven to reminisce in order to compare impressions of earlier occasions. On went the tape recorder to make reminiscence superfluous.
One of the charms of photography was the suspense as to whether and, if so, how your picture “came out.” And of course this led to the taking of repeated photographs just to be sure that there would be one satisfactory result. In 1947 an ingenious, Go-Getting New Englander, Edwin H. Land, invented what he described as a “camera that delivers a finished photograph immediately after exposure is made.” Photographic historians and critics, and Land himself, first hailed the new achievement as important mainly for the art of photography. In the early days, they recalled, the man who made a daguerrotype or a tintype could see a finished positive within a few minutes after he had taken the picture. But the later negative-positive system postponed the opportunity for such comparisons by dividing the process of taking from the process of making a photograph.
Land’s Polaroid camera provided a new version of the one-step technique. Now the Polaroid photographer, like any other artist, could observe the subject and see his likeness of it at the same time. As Land himself explained:
By making it possible for the photographer to observe his work and his subject matter simultaneously, and by removing most of the manipulative barriers between the photographer and the photograph, it is hoped that many of the satisfactions of working in the early arts can be brought to a new group of photographers…. The process must be concealed from—non-existent for—the photographer, who by definition need think of the art in the taking and not in making photographs…. In short, all that should be necessary to get a good picture is to take a good picture, and our task is to make that possible.
The ordinary citizen, impatient for a replica of the moment, found in Polaroid the convenience of seeing a copy of his experience (a “double take”) only a minute after. In May 1972 Polaroid announced a camera that produced a positive print instantaneously, just as it came out of the camera, within two seconds after exposure.
IN THEIR BEGINNING the new techniques of repeatable experience had added a dimension to life, making experience richer and subtler. “You cannot say you have thoroughly seen anything,” the French novelist Émile Zola observed in 1900, “until you have got a photograph of it, revealing a lot of points which otherwise would be unnoticed, and which in most cases could not be distinguished.” Everybody’s new power to take pictures and, after the tape recorder, to make sound recordings, was more than another source of spare-time pleasure. This new technology was reshaping human consciousness.
In the democratic booster-enthusiasm for life enrichment through art and hobby-fun, the wider meaning of these techniques was easily overlooked. It was easy to see that the camera and the phonograph instantly increased knowledge or widened experience. But it was hard to foresee that in the longer run, these and other machines that made experience repeatable could actually dilute experience, dull consciousness, and flatten sensations. Originally, many of the charms of the photograph and of the phonograph record came from their novelty—and from the very difficulty of securing a good photograph or a good recording. But within a few decades, when these techniques had become instamatic, cheap and easy and universal, what was their meaning in the American’s experience?
Did the very perfection of techniques for widening experience, and especially those for creating and diffusing the repeatable experience—did all this, somehow, impoverish experience in the very process of democratizing it? Was it inevitable that a democratized experience, however rich and technologically sophisticated, should be impoverished? Was there an inherent contradiction between the aim of democracy—to enrich the citizen’s everyday life—and its modern means? Did the very instruments of life enrichment, once available to all, somehow make life blander and less poignant? Could it possibly be true that while democratizing (the process) enriched, democracy (the product) diluted? These were some novel, tantalizing questions which would haunt American democracy in the twentieth century.
All this suggested still another question, a clue perhaps to the hidden rationale of the American booster spirit. Was the brighter, richer, more open life that America promised a product, then, not of a high standard of living, but only of an always rising standard of living? Did the human richness of American democracy come not from the attainment of wealth, but from the reaching for it? Perhaps, then, the mission and the doom of American technology were the continual discovery of new techniques. Perhaps the best things in democracy came not from having but from seeking, not from being well off but from becoming better off. Would a high standard of living, no matter how high, always open vistas that would become flat and stale? And was it necessary to keep the standard of living ever rising if the vistas were to remain wide and open and fresh?