Edison's "Multi-media" Inventions

I was going to subtitle this post “If I write about this on my official blog, does at least part of my trip become a tax deduction?” But I’m not…. And I had also meant to post this a couple of days ago. It’s funny how being “on vaction” actually meant I had more time to do this sort of blog work. But I digress…

Anyway, my last stop on my winter break vacation in Florida was The Edison and Ford Winter Estates in Fort Meyers, FL and, among other things, I was quite struck by the number of ways in which Edison’s inventions paved the way for the writing and multi-media technologies we use now.

Some of it is stuff you all knew about already. At the top of this entry is a photo of an early phonograph. You turned the flywheel on the left to a specific speed and then talked into the small thing in the middle/right part of it, which then etched the vibrations/recordings in a piece of tin foil-like stuff. To play it, you reversed everything.

Edison phonograph
Not a very good picture, but this is a phonograph that Edison himself worked with. Apparently, Edison was so deaf that he literally would bite into the phonograph to hear/feel the playback. According to the information at the exhibit, Edison’s teeth marks are in the upper-left hand side of the machine.

Edison film stuff
And of course, Edison was one of the inventors/innovators responsible for “moving pictures.” Here are some examples of early movie cameras. One thing I didn’t realize/learned from the exhibit: Edison set up a film company in Queens, NY, and his company made what is often considered one of the first “great” silent films, The Great Train Robbery. But apparently (and this is again according to the things they had at the Edison/Ford museum), Edison was soon passed by other early film pioneers like DW Griffith and Louis Mayer.

Early networking?
But then there are the inventions that are a bit less well-known– at least to me. Here’s a (bad, unfortunately) picture of an early office dictation machine. Essentially, the boss talked into the contraption at the bottom and then the recording was sent out to one of “the girls” via a telephone-like interface so that it could then be typed up.

Mimeograph #1
I don’t know exactly what this says about me, but I guess the writing/media technology that I found most surprising was the Mimeograph. You remember the mimeograph machine, don’t you? I certainly remember getting those purple-lettered hand-outs all the way through my schooling, and I think I actually used one of these babies when I first started teaching college as a grad student in the late 1980s.

Anyway, it turns out Edison earned a patent on the mimeograph in 1876, though his was quite a bit different from when I remember it. His original machine was flat (the one on the right) and the stencils were created by what was called an “electric pen:”

Electric Pen

When I first saw this in the museum (with just this label of “Electric Pen” and no explanation), my first thoughts were “what the heck is that?” This explanation at the IEEE Virtual Museum helped. Basically, you used the pen to create a stencil-like sheet that could be run through the mimeograph machine. As the IEEE site points out, this particular technology was replaced with the more efficient typewriter, first a special kind that could make stencils and then with carbon paper.

There were a few other pictures, but you get the idea.

I don’t have time to puzzle it all out right now, but I guess I just found it striking somehow that this sort of simple duplication technology has been around as long as it has. This sort of simple “desktop publishing” certainly was an important part of my own education and my own study as a writer; perhaps there’s something worth exploring here a bit more? Hmmmm….

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