Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 2009:
THE END OF BOOKS: 1894

by John H. Lienhard

Today, a surprising vision of a future. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

We all know the future is unknowable. Predictions wander way off base. Yet now and then, someone gets part of it right. Here's an article on The End of Books in the 1894 Scribner's Magazine. The title's wrong, but pieces of the prediction are astonishing.

Three technologies in place by 1894 had all been propelled by Thomas Edison: there were electric motors -- big clunky machines, and phonographs -- still using wax cylinders. And Edison's new kinetoscope played the most rudimentary silent movies. Several years would have to pass before anyone would conceive of radio.

Now the author describes a late night dinner party where a visionary named Arthur Blackcross rises to tell the group that they're about to see the end of books. These new technologies will replace books, he says. He and his illustrator present a remarkable picture of our early 21st-century media.

He predicts that phonographs will be miniaturized and powered by tiny electric motors. Audio cylinders will be made "as light as celluloid penholders." They and their electric drives will be carried in "a simple opera-glass case." One illustration shows a gentleman with a walking stick, and earphones connected to a player. He strolls through the woods listening to the latest novel.

Libraries will be replaced by phonographotecks, where you can check out the latest cylinders, or plug in and listen to them. He even envisions combining phonographs and kinetoscopes to get something very close to our television. There's more: People will buy cylinders at streetside kiosks. Trains will have phonographoteck cars for passengers.

The image I find most remarkable is his idea of a modern news-room. Reporters are shown dashing off to a row of recording booths with their stories. They talk, not into microphones, but speaking tubes connected to cylinder recorders. I'm practically looking at my own radio station's newsroom, where I record these episodes.

Mr. Blackcross came very close on so much. He had I-pods, TVs, and books on CDs, but he missed the idea of radio signals or digital recordings. His worst error, however, was much larger and more subtle. He assumed that new technologies replace old ones.

They don't. New technologies replace certain functions, while old technologies go on doing what they do best. Radio or TV gets news to us more quickly. But newspapers are better able to tell the full story. Movies and TV supply images; books allow us to create our own. Old and new technologies are not mutually exclusive. Instead, they reinforce one another.

Blackstone got the small stuff right. All his fancy new media have come into being. Yet you and I read more books than ever. This splendid old article feels a lot like swimming in a riptide. We think we're seeing our swimming realistically, only to find that unseen undertows have swept us far, far, out to sea.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Octave Uzanne, The End of Books. (Illustrations by A. Robida) Scribner's Magazine, Vol. XVI, No. 2. August, 1894, pp. 220-231.

For the text of the article, see: http://lucy.ukc.ac.uk/Uzanne/uzanne2.html. Four of the illustrations follow, below.


1894 concept of an I-Pod
1894 concept of a phonographic newsroom
1894 concept of TV
1894 concept of a railway phonographoteck

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2005 by John H. Lienhard.