Gregory Radick’s chapter in New Media: 1740-1915 focuses on the work of evolutionist R.L. Garner and how he used the phonograph to try and prove Darwin’s theory of evolution.
Radick begins his chapter with a brief explanation of early phonographs, which differ from later phonographs in their ability to both record and play sounds. Initially, these sounds were recorded on tinfoil, which was rotated while someone spoke into a horn. The tinfoil rubbed up against a diaphragm that vibrated with the noise, creating the recording. It could be listened to by fitting a stylus into the resulting grooves, but only a few times before it was too degraded to be used again. A decade later, Edison improved on this design, most notably with the introduction of a wax cylinder to replace the tinfoil. This allowed the recordings to be played hundreds of times before degradation, as opposed to only several.
As Gitelman notes in her introduction to the book, when a new medium is introduced, its purpose is often not yet defined. This was certainly the case for the phonograph: Edison envisioned it being used for practical purposes, like sending messages. But scientists and anthropologists found another use for them: philological research via the recording of spoken language. Jesse Walter Fewkes was one of the first anthropologists to use the phonograph for this purpose, by recording American Indians in Maine. It was Richard Garner, however, who took the phonograph to a new level by recording monkeys and their communications, trying to establish a link between their language and the language of humans, therefore reinforcing the validity of evolution.
Garner was not a trained scientist. Rather, he was a teacher interested in the formation of language and in the concept of phonetics, which led him to his research on monkey language. He took Edison’s phonograph to zoos, recording monkey calls, and replaying those recordings to the monkeys to see their responses.
Garner’s work utilizing new media may have been lost without the aid of old media. He published his study in the New Review, which was a popular literature magazine as opposed to a scientific journal. These articles were expanded into a larger book, The Speech of Monkeys. This book proved to be popular, and gave Garner the fame to continue on with his research, supported by Edison himself. Old media ended up destroying Garner’s legacy, though. Another magazine launched a campaign to discredit Garner and his work, and was successful.
It’s interesting to note that this chapter seems to be an exception of sorts to Gitelman and Pingree’s emphasis on “forgotten media.” Unlike the zograscope or physiognotrace, the phonograph is historically familiar to many Americans, due in part to our incorrect assumption that phonographs and gramophones are interchangeable terms for an old-fashioned record player. This specific example of research and study made using what was then new media is lost to the majority due to an old media campaign to obliterate it. Gitelman is correct in her introduction in calling supercession a reductive “futurological trope,” then, because in this case, old media destroys something created by new media and not the reverse. And it is ironic that it is old media that brings this case back to life, returning Garner to fame with historians of new media with his inclusion in this book (maybe not the fame Garner envisioned for himself, but a noble fame all the same). It represents the linkage of old and new media, as well. Clearly, the division between when old media ceased being used and new media became the dominant form is nonexistent, but here especially, we see an example of how old media continued to have the power to influence thoughts and opinions after the introduction of something new.