A to Z

This section explores an A-Z of the themes that reoccur throughout the images that we gathered for this project. 

M is for Media

‘Media, as we understand the word today, is a nineteenth-century invention’ (Colette Colligan and Margaret Linley, 2016). Technology and logistics for recording and transmitting information proliferated: media developed from the sharing of text through mass publication to the recording of sound and the capturing of the moving image. The beginnings of transmitted audiovisual media in the late nineteenth century promised new embodied and spatialised experiences. Rather than travelling to the concert hall to listen to an opera, those performances could be heard at home through a phonograph. With the telephone, conversation could take place in real time and transport voices without any speaker travelling themselves. Early cinema enabled viewers to see distant locations and watch the world reflected back at them.

Nineteenth-century predictions of media offer the most prescient visions of the role of technology in future life. The Maher and Crosh trade cards forecast life in turn of the twenty-first century America, including what we’d recognise as proto-livestreaming or at-home cinema. In one card, an opera is performed in a concert hall while a group of young men and woman are in another room, possibly at home. The moving image of the female singer is captured and broadcast onto the wall of the home, and each member of the home audience has a handheld receiver to hear the music. In another panel, a lounging woman can’t see the broadcast but can still listen through her own receiver. 

The illustrator predicts a distant future that was soon to be realised through radio, cinema and television – and was already in development through transatlantic invention. After the invention of the telephone, inventors and the public speculated on the next step: recording or transmitting moving image. Developing technology for the 1893 Columbian Exposition, Thomas Edison envisioned a device for broadcasting recorded performance: ‘my intention is … that a man can sit in his own parlor and see depicted on a curtain the forms of the players in opera on a distant stage and hear the voices of the singers’ (The New York Sun, 13 May 1891). In an earlier undeveloped scheme, Edison hypothesised a ‘Far-Sight Machine’ or electric telescope that could transmit live events (Isabel Roberts, 2019). 

Whether recorded or live performance, the Maher and Crosh home broadcast technology shapes both culture and community. If this is a device to be found in all homes, like today’s television, then it democratises high culture, enabling those outside the metropole to see and hear opera, classical music or theatre. At-home broadcasting offers a new domestic social event: people can be invited over, and the audience members in the illustration talk to one another (about the performance or the technology). Today, we don’t need to be in the same room, but can watch the same recording or transmission through synchronised viewing online. Through simultaneous viewing of live events broadcast into individual homes, a new public sphere is created.

As Isabel Roberts writes, ‘the grandiose claims made about new invention did not always align with the improvements they promised for everyday life’, including Edison’s plans for broadcasting live image. George du Maurier’s earlier ‘Edison’s Telephonoscope’ (Punch, December 1878) satirises this combination of telephone and video. Poking fun at an elite family in London video calling their children in Sri Lanka every day, du Maurier dismisses this invention as a frippery rather than something useful for middle-class Londoners. Today, however, the media technology du Maurier imagines as frivolous is incredibly necessary for social connection: the Zoom call.

‘Concert and Opera at Home’, One Hundred Years Hence (Toledo: Maher and Crosh Cutlery Co., c. 1900), reproduced by Ben Crane, tradecards.com.