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