Democracy, SpaceTime, and New Media: Thoughts on “Media on Display: A Telegraphic History of Early American Cinema” by Paul Young.

by Matthew Amyx

Still From The Lonedale Operator
Still of telegraph operator from The Lonedale Operator by D.W. Griffith, 1911.

Historians, museum directors, and librarians realize they must adopt new media to keep their educational institutions relevant, but how do they introduce innovative technologies without intimidating audiences into avoiding or, just as bad, passively interacting with the new tools?  In “Media on Display: A Telegraphic History of Early American Cinema” (a chapter from New Media: 1740-1915, edited by Lisa Gitelman and Geoffrey Pingree from MIT Press), Paul Young demonstrates how early cinema depicted telegraph in films as a device to show how cinema, like telegraph, conceptually broke the SpaceTime barrier by crossing geographies to tell stories and relate news, giving distant and past events urgency and relevancy for audiences. Public historians should consider these models as they move deeper into the 21st century and are tasked to incorporate social media, “The Cloud”, virtual reality, and artificial intelligence into educational programming.

Cinema broke down the constraints of geography, allowing narratives to jump from one location to another at impossible speed (i.e. one moment the camera eye can be in Houston, the next on Mars). But audiences had to be introduced to this capability of the new media in the early 20th century. Paul Young shows how D.W. Griffith’s 1911 film The Lonedale Operator does just that using telegraph. (View the short film here.) A young female telegrapher sees a couple hooligans coming to burgle her office, and uses the telegraph to send for help. Contemporary audiences knew telegraph could jump geography, and so the telegraph served as a device to make sense of cinematic scene changes from one telegraph office to the next. Additionally, early displays of cinema newsreels, such as one at New York’s Broadway Theater during the 1896 Presidential election, incorporated elements of both telegraph and film (with filmed scenes, relevant or not, appearing in between telegraphed election returns). Audiences were used to reacting to telegraphed news with a sense of immediacy despite there often being some chronological distance between the event and the news report; linking the familiar capabilities of telegraph technology with emergent cinema newsreels acclimated audiences to the new media.

Scene from McKinnley at Home, 1896
Still from film William McKinley at Home, 1896. William McKinley was the first U.S. President recorded on motion picture film.


These examples should encourage public historians to brainstorm ways to depict yesterday’s new media in today’s new media to make audiences more comfortable with the latter’s use. For example, if a museum used virtual reality technology to immerse students in a Renaissance city, could they depict reactions to a printing press in the program to indicate that, like the printing press, VR technology allows patrons to “see” and “hear” distant, past events as though they were just happening?

Young also discusses whether new medias democratize information and encourage public interaction or not. Telephones would have seemed to excel at this, since they allow real-time response to information, and indeed early cinema used telephones as narrative devices to jump geographies much as with telegraphs (see D.W. Griffith’s 1909 film The Lonely Villa). But telephones were (in practice and in cinema depiction) a private device of the upper class, not a public device serving the working man. Edwin Porter’s 1903 film The Life of an American Firefighter (seen here), by contrast, shows telegraph calling a firefighter out of his private life into public service, a device helping Porter’s cameras to bridge public and private life through the cinema narrative. Despite film and telegraph being largely one-way forms of communication, they represent, counter-intuitively, more democratizing forms of new media because they are seen as public and encourage interaction – not between the transmitter and the receiver (as with telephone) but between one audience member and the next (as with local debate after viewing national newsreels).

Still from The Lonely Villa
Still from The Lonely Villa by D.W. Griffith, 1909. Although useful in the narrative, the telephone is also depicted as a private tool of the upper-class vulnerable to failure.


How can public historians apply these examples to democratize new media in educational institutions? Perhaps rather than using two-way electronic apps in an exhibit to establish a seemingly private conversation between the institution and the guest, museums can employ social media to create a more public forum for dialogue between guests. An exhibit could, for example, depict the older media of public access television community bulletin boards as a model for an attached new media app where guests share local interest posts with each other. Or a display on Johannes Gutenberg and the democratizing effect of the printing press could link through a QR code to a website where you upload a personalized illuminated-manuscript style summary of the exhibit to your family and friends. By depicting old media the public is familiar with to introduce them to new media, and by emphasizing the democratizing aspects of the new technology, public historians and educational institutions can demystify innovative technologies, foster a sense of immediacy and relevance in exhibits, and facilitate dialogue between patrons to keep programming fresh and vibrant.

Still of Fire Alarm Telegraph Station from The Life of An American Firefighter
Still from The Life of An American Firefighter by Edwin Porter, 1903. The telegraph brings the private citizen into public service, which Paul Young finds analogous to how newsreels brought average Americans into public dialogue.