When Old Technologies Were New: Thinking About Electric Communication in the Late Nineteenth Century

Front Cover
Oxford University Press, May 24, 1990 - Technology & Engineering - 296 pages
In the history of electronic communication, the last quarter of the nineteenth century holds a special place, for it was during this period that the telephone, phonograph, electric light, wireless, and cinema were all invented. In When old Technologies Were New, Carolyn Marvin explores how two of these new inventions--the telephone and the electric light--were publicly envisioned at the end of the nineteenth century, as seen in specialized engineering journals and popular media. Marvin pays particular attention to the telephone, describing how it disrupted established social relations, unsettling customary ways of dividing the private person and family from the more public setting of the community. On the lighter side, she describes how people spoke louder when calling long distance, and how they worried about catching contagious diseases over the phone. A particularly powerful chapter deals with telephonic precursors of radio broadcasting--the "Telephone Herald" in New York and the "Telefon Hirmondo" of Hungary--and the conflict between the technological development of broadcasting and the attempt to impose a homogenous, ethnocentric variant of Anglo-Saxon culture on the public. While focusing on the way professionals in the electronics field tried to control the new media, Marvin also illuminates the broader social impact, presenting a wide-ranging, informative, and entertaining account of the early years of electronic media.

What people are saying - Write a review

When old technologies were new: thinking about electric communication in the late nineteenth century

User Review  - Not Available - Book Verdict

Late last century a series of electrical innovations drastically altered the social order and economies of industrial nations. This book uses two innovations, the telephone and the electric light, to ... Read full review


1 Inventing the Expert Technological Literacy as Social Currency
2 Community and Class Order Progress Close to Home
3 Locating the Body in Electrical Space and Time Competing Authorities
4 Dazzling the Multitude Original Media Spectacles
5 Annihilating Space Time and Difference Experiments in Cultural Homogenization

Other editions - View all

Common terms and phrases

Popular passages

Page 3 - in a historical sense, the computer is no more than an instantaneous telegraph with a prodigious memory, and all the communications inventions in between have simply been elaborations on the telegraph's original work."0 I hope to have shown that this early acoustical instrument has a more complicated place than that.
Page 8 - Marvin reminds us in her historical study of electric communication in the late nineteenth century, technologies "are not fixed natural objects; they have no natural edges. They are constructed complexes of habits, beliefs, and procedures embedded in elaborate cultural codes of communication

About the author (1990)

Carolyn Marvin is Associate Professor of Communication, Annenberg School for Communication, University of Pennsylvania.

Bibliographic information