JF Ptak Science Books Quick Post
I found this image flipping through an issue of the London Punch for 8 July 1893. It shows a group of people gang-listening to a phonograph, with Mr. Punch holding court. The phonograph was already into its third decade (invented by Mr. Edison in 1877 with the patent granted in 1878) and was becoming massively popular, with the prices for the machine and the wax cylinders that powered the interest dramatically falling so that it was within reach of the working middle class.
The image was used as a header illustration to the opening of the new volume for the second half of the year, and was an introduction to the table of contents for the 300-odd pages that followed, and its legend reads in part:
"The Penny Phonograph," pursued Mr. Oracle Punch, "is now prodigiously patronised. For the popular penny you can hear an American band, a Chevalier coster ballad, the 'Charge of the Light Brigade,' a comic song by 'Little Tich,' or a speech by the Old Man eloquent. No; for the latter I believe they charge twopence. That is fame, my Pantagruelian Premier..."
You can sense that Mr. Punch is more than a little wincing with his faint praise. He does take exception to the lightness of the experience, as well as the cost. He contends in a way that we experience today that the printed media--his own magazine, a "Funograph"-- is more complete and the real voice of wisdom:
"But in my Funograph—charge the unchangeable Threepence—you can hear the very voice of Wisdom and Wit, of Humanity and Humour, of Eloquence and Essential Truth, of Music and of Mirth!
And while Mr. Punch might seem to be talking about the phonograph, he is addressing his own Punch:
"Sweet lady," responded the Oracle, with gentle gravity, "there is guidance here for all who will listen; heavenly Charity and diabolic Anarchy, eloquent Statesmanship and adventurous Enterprise, scared Capital and clamorous Labour, fogged Finance and self-assertive Femininity; for the motley and many-voiced Utopia-hunters who fancy they see imminent salvation in Imperial Pomp or Parochial Pump, in Constitutional Clubs or County Councils, in Home Rule, Primrose Leagues, or the Living Wage, in Democracy or in Dynamite, in High Art or Mahatmas, in Science or in Spooks. Take your places, Ladies and Gentlemen! Charity first, if you please, with Father Christmas to her right, leaving room for the little New Year on her left. Listen all, and learn by the various voices of that many-cylindered, marvellous Funographic Machine...
Advances in the technology of communication have always caused debate--the availability of the printed book was going to make obsolete storytellers and theater, the telegraph would end letter- and book-writing, the telephone would end the telegraph and letter writing and decreased the collective intelligence by shortening the time of thought in communication, the radio would end the telegraph and letter writing and the theater and perhaps books, the television would end radio and etc., vast increases in social media will end privacy and reflective time, and so on. The advances certainly did doom the form of communication that they trumped, mostly, though what they did to the actual communications part was change it, not end it. And although Punch wasn't saying that the phonograph was going to do away with anything at all, he was saying that he felt it inferior. And for you to buy his magazine.
The last bit on the ruminations of the impact of social media on privacy and reflection is something that I do believe to be real, and this in spite of all that I know about the history of change in communications; but here I think the medium might have so much "message" that there might not be any at all, given the enormous amount of data units that can be delivered into our consciousness and the limited amount of time for perception (let alone understanding). And this is just the beginning, the most primitive stages of vast and pervasive communication.
And as I write this I wonder if I'm not sounding like a sniffy somebody writing about the impact of the telephone in 1880.