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From the Magic Lantern to the Internet
By James Lyons, John Plunkett
University of Exeter PressCopyright © 2007 James Lyons, John Plunkett
All rights reserved.
Toys, Instruments, Machines Why the Hardware Matters
A machine was a thing made up of distinguishable 'parts', organised in imitation of some part of the human body. Machines were said to 'work'.
For Peter Jewell
What were moving pictures for? I raise the question in order to explore a theme which is in danger of being obscured by the obvious fact that moving-picture apparatus quickly became the means to fulfil a number of purposes: to produce entertainment and to a lesser extent instruction. In this sense, it joined the ranks of machines—apparatuses with a 'definite function' (according to part of the Oxford English Dictionary definition, of which more later)—and became correspondingly invisible. Or, rather, the history of cameras, projectors and sound recorders became a matter for connoisseurship or for engineering history, rather than one likely to interest historians of the medium of cinema, whether aesthetic, social or ideological. What does it matter how the image is produced and delivered, once it has been sufficiently standardized to attract no interest in itself—except perhaps when it malfunctions?
If we believe this, then collecting historic cinema apparatus or the various optical instruments, gadgets and toys that preceded and accompanied its rise to dominance is merely antiquarian. However curious or valuable they may be as objects, they will not tell us anything about the experience of cinema. However, I want to argue against such an idealist position, and to assert a materialist history based on taking into account the machinery as well as its products; and on seeing cinema as part of a continuing tradition of spectacle and illusion, rather than as a separate art with a 'pre-history'. Part of my argument will take the kaleidoscope as an example of an instrument which appears, to us at least, to have no 'purpose'.
But let us return to the question of what moving pictures were 'for'. The simplest answer is that they demonstrated the successful achievement of animated photography. They were self-referential or reflexive, in the way that the phonograph or electrical lighting was primarily the demonstration of an achievement before it was a means to some end. Such expectations are clear from the terms of press reports during the early months of projected film shows (terms are italicized for emphasis):
THE CINÉMATOGRAPHE, which is the invention of MM. A. and L. Lumière, is a contrivance belonging to the same family as Edison's Kinetoscope and the old 'Wheel of Life,' but in a rather higher state of development. The spectator no longer gazes through a narrow aperture at the changing picture, but has it presented to him full size on a large screen. The principle, however, is much the same, consisting simply of passing rapidly before the eye a series of pictures representing the successive stages of the action or the changing scene that has to be reproduced.
Edison's beautiful optical instrument, the kinetoscope, has now become known to most people through its exhibition in various large towns.
Animated lantern pictures are still the rage, for not only are there four different machines or projection apparatus being publicly exhibited at the present time in London, but these are being duplicated at the east and west ends, besides arrangements being in progress for provincial exhibitions.
Another reason for paying close attention to such early reports is to note their terminology. The terms used by both the nonspecialist and professional press of 1896 range across 'invention', 'contrivance', 'instrument', 'machine', 'apparatus'. They are evocative of a period of intense development or 'perfecting' (a favourite Edison term) of basic mechanisms in order to fulfil their aim or potential. There was indeed considerable contemporary amusement at the proliferation of pompous terminology, as evidenced in another 1896 press report that spoke of'the new thing with the long name and the old thing with the name that isn't much shorter', while the many variations on '... graph' already seemed absurd to the British Journal of Photography by the summer of that year. There would also be commercial considerations relating to proprietary names and legal ones relating to patented principles. But was there any significance in something being described as an 'instrument' or a 'machine' rather than a 'toy', as the New York Times called Edison's first projector in April 1896?
The new thing at Koster and Bial's last night was Edison's vitascope, exhibited for the first time. The ingenious inventor's latest toy is a projection of his kinetoscope figures in stereopticon fashion, upon a white screen in a darkened hall.
In the turn-of-the-century worldview, an instrument had a purpose. According to the 1910 edition of the OED, it is 'a material thing designed ... for the accomplishment of some mechanical or other physical effect', which stands somewhere between a 'tool ... used by a workman or artisan' and a machine, distinguished from this by 'having less mechanism', although, as the dictionary warned, 'the terms overlap'. This ambiguity could equally apply to the status of moving picture devices in 1896. Lacking as yet any established use, these were exhibited for the entertainment and instruction of spectators, just as a long line of optical devices known as optical toys had been throughout the nineteenth century and earlier. However, by the end of the century, 'toy' was already restricted to the juvenile or trivial connotations we know today. Webster's definition in 1913 was 'a plaything for children ... A thing for amusement, but of no real value'; while the 1910 OED offered within 'concrete senses': 'a material object for children or others to play with (often an imitation of some familiar object) ... something contrived for amusement rather than practical use', noting that 'this is now the leading sense, to which others are referred'.
It had not always been the leading sense; and the possibility of tracing shifts in the usage of this and other words was the result of another quintessentially Victorian enterprise, the study of the history of language, as part of a general preoccupation with classification which would serve the new sciences of the era. The 1910 OED history of the word 'toy' is revealing. Not only is the word's origin uncertain, but after a single recorded use in 1303, it seems to 'disappear for two centuries, and then ... all at once burst into view with a wide sense-development'. This explosion of use in the sixteenth century ranges across 'fantastic acts and practices', jests and jokes, lively phrases of melody and odd conceits—all of which indicate how central concepts of fantasy and play were to Elizabethan culture.14 Equally central, and related, was a fascination with magic; and the distinction between supernatural and natural forms of magic, although insisted on by such practitioners of the latter as Giambattista della Porta, was often hard to maintain. According to della Porta's bestseller, Natural Magick:
There are two sorts of Magick; the one is infamous, and unhappy, because it has to do with foul Spirits, and consists of incantations and wicked curiosity; and this is called Sorcery; an art which all learned and good men detest; neither is it able to yield an truth of reason or nature, but stands merely upon fancies and imaginations ... The other Magick is natural; which all excellent wise men do admit and embrace, and worship with great applause.
Despite the protestations of della Porta and many other Renaissance scholars, such distinctions would remain hard to maintain, not least because of the fascination of the 'infamous' magic; and since the pioneering work of Frances Yates on the Elizabethan magus John Dee and on Giordano Bruno, it has become commonplace to acknowledge the continued cohabitation of magic and early science. Something of this fascination was surely present in the following century's preoccupation with what became known as 'philosophical toys'. The most celebrated of these took the form of ingenious machines, initially imitating animals, as in the gardens of the Villa d'Este at Tivoli and the Villa Pratolino near Florence, where an early seventeenth-century English traveller described how
the birds do sing, sitting upon twigs, so naturally, as one would verily think they were all quick and living birds ... and, when they are in the midst of their best singing, then comes an owl flying: and the birds suddenly, all at once, are still.
The birds' mechanical nature was dramatically revealed by their sudden immobility. Later mechanical marvels would aim at a more integral emulation of living behaviour, as in the celebrated excreting duck made by Jacques de Vaucanson and various humanoid automata such as Vaucanson's flautist, Pierre Jaquet-Droz's automatic writer and his son Henri-Louis's harpist, whose eyes 'followed' the music. In Vienna, Wolfgang von Kempelen created two of the marvels of the age in his talking machine and chess player of 1783.
What gave this range of ingenious machines their scientific or 'philosophical' status was the speculation among such philosophers as Hume, Descartes and Bayle on whether animals, or even human bodies, could be regarded as machines, uniquely animated in the latter case by the possession of a soul. The ability of man-made automata to reproduce animal and human behaviour made this seem more likely, and helped to focus such debates around devices which were also entertaining and costly. Derek Price was one of the first scholars in the history of science and technology to argue that these mechanical marvels, like their ancestors in the ancient world, were not intended to be 'practical' or even strictly illusory. Their appeal was rather aesthetic, or exemplary. They demonstrated principles and possibilities, such as those first proposed by the Greek philosopher and scientist Hero in his Pneumatics, which was widely studied as both a work of early physics and a guide to 'natural magic', which included phenomena relating to magnetism, change of state and optical illusion. Daniel Tiffany has summed up this complex of ideology and practice in his wide-ranging study of 'materialism and modern lyric', Toy Medium, arguing that the tradition of 'philosophical atomism' or materialism had long made use of 'a discourse of automated —and spectacular—"proofs"'.
By the nineteenth century, such proofs had begun to assume more modest and didactic forms, and 'toy' was moving closer to its modern sense of something manual which is 'played with'. The sequence of specifically kinetic optical toys, as distinct from the static images of the magic lantern and the peep show, is usually traced from the launch of the thaumatrope and the phenakistoscope in the 1820s. Both of these were inspired, or at least explained, by Peter Mark Roget's 1824 paper, 'Explanation of an optical deception in the appearance of the spokes of a wheel seen through vertical apertures', and by Michael Faraday's subsequent demonstration of the consequences of afterimages, or the persistence of vision, with what became known as 'Faraday's wheel'. All of these followed from the fundamental studies of vision initiated by Newton, Goethe and others, concerned with questions about how physiology conditions what we see. Human vision had become a form of 'apparatus', with specific limitations and properties, which were demonstrated by the paradoxes of the thaumatrope and phenakistoscope. Charles Wheatstone was the inventor of another such device, the kaleidophone, and defined the rationale of the modern philosophical toy in 1827:
The application of the principles of science to ornamental and amusing purposes contributes, in a greater degree, to render them extensively popular; for the exhibition of striking experiments induces the observer to investigate their causes with additional interest, and enables him more permanently to remember their effects.
Wheatstone's instrument or 'toy', which traced illuminated figures in space, was named after the recent and highly successful kaleidoscope; and I want to focus on this because it is something we now hardly think of as an instrument at all. If an instrument has by definition a purpose, a use, then it is difficult to see what this could be in the case of the kaleidoscope with its display of ever-changing abstract patterns. Chronologically, it pre-dates the other nineteenth-century devices, having been invented in 1815 by the Scottish natural philosopher David Brewster. Brewster was working on optics and on crystallography, and his interest in angles of refraction and mirroring would lead him to anticipate the development of the Fresnel dioptric lens, which became standard equipment in lighthouses. As he noted in his 1819 treatise on the kaleidoscope, the device emerged by chance from his experimental practice: 'The first idea of this instrument presented itself to me in the year 1814, in the course of a series of experiments in the polarisation of light by successive reflections between plates of glass ...' Brewster realized this could become a device that would produce an infinite range of symmetrical aesthetic patterns, and named it from a combination of the Greek words kalos (beautiful), eidos (form) and scop (to see). He proceeded to patent and develop it, while admitting that 'in its simplest form [it] could not be considered as a general philosophical instrument of universal application'. But it caused a sensation when marketed in 1816 and Brewster felt able to declare it a 'popular instrument for the purposes of rational amusement'. He also argued that it had many practical applications, such as producing patterns for tiles, carpets and other forms of interior decoration.
The Kaleidoscope will assume the character of the highest class of machinery, which improves at the same time as it abridges the exertions of individuals ... it will create in an hour what a thousand artists could not create in a year.
Here is a striking case of terminological slippage, from 'philosophical' to 'popular' instrument, and to 'machine'—all referring to the same device considered within different frames of reference. Yet the kaleidoscope is hardly a machine in the modern sense, lacking even the mechanism of the phenakistoscope or later, more complex, optical devices. It is strictly personal, activated by handling, and belongs to the object-type or instrument family that includes the telescope and the microscope. Somewhat like the latter, the kaleidoscope reveals a microcosmic 'world' to the viewer, even if it is an artificial one.
Jonathan Crary has claimed, in his influential Techniques of the Observer, that Brewster's 'justification for making the kaleidoscope was productivity and efficiency', since it offered a 'mechanical means for the reformation of art according to an industrial paradigm'. But a reading less influenced by Foucault's preoccupation with mechanisms of coercion and modernization might acknowledge Brewster's utilitarian rationalization, while noting his equal emphasis on 'amusement' and instruction. From his research in crystallography and physiology, Brewster was well aware of nature's underlying symmetry, as revealed by the microscope and now simulated by the kaleidoscope. Brewster stood on the threshold of the era when machinery was expected to be labour-saving and profitable. And as a Scot his hopes for the kaleidoscope as a pattern generator reflect the importance of textile weaving and carpet making in Scotland in the early nineteenth century, the recent innovation of the Jacquard loom making pattern variety both possible and commercially vital. But Brewster also had his roots in the tradition of the philosophical toy as a precision instrument designed to impress with its craftsmanship and ingenuity, while demonstrating some basic principles which might be scientific but also moral.
Excerpted from Multimedia Histories by James Lyons, John Plunkett. Copyright © 2007 James Lyons, John Plunkett. Excerpted by permission of University of Exeter Press.
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