Phonograph and Telephone: New Media in the 1870s and 1880s

In the introduction to “Always Already New,” Gitelman (2006) emphasizes the importance for media historians to focus their research on the specific point in time when new technologies are first introduced.  All of our readings this week do just that with detailed investigations of society in the latter quarter of the nineteenth century when the telegraph and telephone were first invented.  Their research reveals an interesting relationship between technology and society: while new technologies had to adapt to fit into existing social and cultural traditions, at the same time they also birthed entirely new sociocultural practices.

Martin (1991) and Starr (2004) illustrate how political, economic, and social practices shaped the adoption and integration of new media technologies.  Martin employs a revisionist approach to illustrate how the adoption of the telephone as an everyday household object was a slow, arduous process subject to the control of competing government and private agendas.  Theoretically the telephone required no special skill to operate and was therefore ‘universally accessible’ to anyone; yet existing capitalist practices moulded the new technology to fit into the existing social order instead of levelling it.

In the same vein, Starr supports Martin’s work by describing how government decisions about media had far reaching implications not only for the existing economy, but also for the success of future technologies.  He explains that any new medium must develop relative to existing technology and its supporting policies and infrastructure.  He uses the example of how governments and private firms who were invested heavily in the telegraph business tried to impede the success of the telephone in order preserve their own investments in the telegraph.

Another common theme is the extent to which new technologies redefined the existing social order – particularly in relation to women’s power and the blurring of the boundaries between the public and private spheres.  Marvin (1990) examines how the telegraph and telephone exposed the private, domestic life of women and the family to the public life of business and community. The telephone allowed for direct communication between women and outside men from right within the walls of the family home.  Martin’s thorough examination of female telephone operators reveals how 1880s women were enabled not only to work outside of the home, but also to spend the majority of the day conversing freely with male customers. Although not specifically gender focussed, Gitelman underscores how nickel-in-the-slot phonographs shifted the traditional private/public divide by enabling customer to listen privately through ear tubes while situated within public community.

Our authors break from the technological determinist approach common to scholars of media and technology history.  A typical history of the ‘electrical revolution’ describes a utopian scenario in which new technologies were widely embraced as gateways the future. Conversely, Martin shows how early home telephones were treated with suspicion, both as potential conductors of disease and even possibly an open invitation to crime.  Through extensive study of public commentary regarding early phonographs, Gitelman exposes how inventors attempted to technologically determine the use this machine as a business tool, while society ultimately embraced it as an entertainment tool.

As we have seen, new technology in the late nineteenth century had to negotiate its place in relation to the existing structures of society while at the same time, shaping and changing the very society they were adapting to.



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