Dead Media list tracks forgotten revolutions

by Elizabeth Weise
USA Today

To help keep the relentless hype of modern technology in perspective, a group of archivists suggests we reflect a bit on the history of such things.

To notices of solar-powered watches, Game Boys or voice-activated computers, they offer up in return the semaphore, the astrolabe, the player piano and the mimeograph.

Their rallying point: the Dead Media list, a creation of science fiction writers Bruce Sterling of Austin and Richard Kadrey of San Francisco. It started in 1995 over Kadrey’s kitchen table, when he and Sterling were drinking “too much coffee and bitching about information superhighway madness,” Sterling remembers.

“You’ll notice that despite all the media hype, there isn’t an information superhighway. It turned out to be puffery and rot.”

They were appalled by the modern desire to call every technical achievement “the greatest thing since Columbus discovered America.” “It’s a 20th century disease to believe we’re not mired in history like everyone else,” Sterling says.

What was needed, the two decided, was a book—one that described “the failures of media, the collapses of media ... a book detailing all the freakish and hideous media mistakes that we should know enough now not to repeat.” That’s how Sterling put it in “The Dead Media Manifesto,” which he posted on the Net along with an offer of a crisp $50 bill to the first person who wrote the book.

Though many have threatened to do so, no one has. But in their stead, a cadre of engineers, amateur historians, unemployed linguists and stray intellectuals has stepped forward instead, becoming in effect collectors of media forensics. These “necronauts” e-mail their findings to Sterling who distributes them in bare-bones form to the Dead Media e-mail list.

Sterling refused to maintain a Web site (run by volunteers, it’s at www.deadmedia.org) “I don’t want it to be wiped out by the course of technological development.” Instead, the list is a series of working notes. Short, pithy and fascinating, they detail media (the magic lantern, the telegraph, the pneumatic tube) that once populated people’s everyday lives as ATMs, computers and phones fill ours.

The notes illustrate something often lost in today’s relentless barrage of technological hype: Innovations  that were once the latest and greatest can vanish without a trace.

Who remembers the Regina players that once filled homes, bars and hotels with music? A cross between a record player and a music box, they were 20-inch metal disks that interacted with tiny sprockets that in turn twanged small tone bars. The players required no electricity, merely a good strong arm to crank them up.

“They lasted from the 1890s to about 1912,” says Bill Burns, an engineer on Long Island who collects them. “All the popular tunes of the day came out on these stamped steel or zinc disks. It was an entire industry.” Gone without a ripple, in the wake of the phonograph. For an example of the strangeness that once seemed cutting-edge, reference the Cahill Telharmonium. This 200-ton electric synthesizer was invented by Canadian Thaddeus Cahill, who hoped to bring music to millions over phone lines. According to Kadrey, there were “five US patents, begun in 1895; three completed instruments; (multimillion-dollar investments) by otherwise astute capitalists; the euphoria of inaugural triumphs in 1907.”

Except for the dates, this kind of wording is familiar in Silicon Valley today. But it turned out the telharmonium interfered with phones, actually blowing out switching systems. Licensee companies gave up in 1918, when radio came into use.

The necronauts have adopted Thaddeus as a mascot, assigning a “Cahill rating” to denote an invention’s degree of oddness. “It’s become a standard unit of measure because it’s such a weird idea. It’s amazing anyone could have thought it up,” says Sterling.

Regina Music Box Discs
Photo by Robert Strong

Heavy metal: Bill Burns, a Long Island collector of “Dead Media,” hefts two Regina music disks. The trashcan thick metal recordings, played on the machine behind him, were popular at the turn of the century.

 

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