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Thomas Edison and the Amusement World

inventions communications telegraph invention

I n “inventing” modern motion pictures, Thomas Alva Edison and William Kennedy Laurie Dickson developed a complex communications system—not a single invention but a whole group of inventions. While this achievement occurred within the framework of multifaceted influences—the work of Muybridge, Étienne-Jules Marey, and others; Edison’s own prior accomplishments also shaped their thinking, the process of invention, and the way the developing motion-picture system was initially employed. In the 1870s Thomas Edison had established himself as the businessman’s inventor. He was hired to make various improvements on the telegraph for Western Union, Jay Gould, and other financial powers then striving for dominance in the fields of communication and transportation. One of Edison’s inventions, the quadruplex, could send four messages over one wire at the same time (two in each direc-’tion), an innovation that saved companies millions of dollars. He also worked on the talking telegraph, or telephone, improving its transmitter and its ability to function over long distances. His most impressive invention in the communications field was undoubtedly the phonograph, and its development and use eventually served him as a model for the development of a motion-picture system.

Edison earned his reputation as an inventor of utilitarian devices employed for the organization of large-scale enterprises. 1 Yet even practical communications technology sometimes provided entertainment in mid-nineteenth-century America. In the 1840s Professor James B. Brown and Dr. A. T. Johnson’s “Grand Exhibition of Nature and Art” demonstrated the telegraph and a wide range of other inventions, including Colt’s submarine battery, the Boston fire alarm bell, and an"Electronome: Or shocking Machine, of great power, for applying Electro-Magnetism to the human body. " In the late 1870s telephone concerts presented “speech, music, imitations &c., over a long wire.” 2 The musician or elocutionist, who was outside the visible and audible reach of the audience, directed sound into the telephone speaker for reproduction by a receiver in the hall. Always accompanied by lectures that explained the scientific and technical basis of the inventions, such demonstrations revealed one aspect of an “operational aesthetic,” which Neil Harris finds characteristic of nineteenth-century American culture. 3 This approach focused attention on the structure of some technology or activity in a way that encouraged audiences to learn how it worked. For Americans, exhibitions of this type had become a form of recreation; they were part of a culture of enlightenment that included the illustrated lecture discussed in the previous chapter. Advocates considered them elevating experiences capable of winning citizens away from those rival amusements that were corrupting and base.

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