Pieces of the Past as Prologue


Reproduction of a Charles Mills painting by the Detroit Publishing Company. Depicts W:Benjamin Franklin at work on a printing press. It is unlikely Franklin would have ever worn a paper hat (paper being expensive in his day), making that something of an anachronism.


When I first taught at New York City College of Technology fifteen years ago, I immediately noticed a glassed-in display of an old flatbed printing press with a dummy dressed as Ben Franklin next to it. Peering in, I saw that the press was in working condition—still is. In fact, it is used for demonstrations in at least one of our classes. I felt immediately that I could be at home, here. Though I had never worked such a press, I could: The letterpress technology I began learning to use when I was quite young is not far removed from what that of Franklin’s day.

Over the past few years, I’ve begun to worry that our move toward the digital is erasing way too much of our past—and our possibility for understanding and appreciating it, especially as background for the digital. The problem today is much more critical than it has been in the past, though problems like this have dogged us at every technological advance in all fields since the beginning of time. The 20th century, that time of fast and widespread advancement, is littered with the signs of lost artifacts of superseded technologies:

[T]he greatest tragedy of the advent of sound [in movies] was the destruction of an untold number of silent films, movies no longer considered important or collectible in the new sound age. It took people with the vision of Henri Langlois [founder of the Cinémathèque Français] to ensure that anything was saved at all—yet the loss was incalculable. In addition, a developing artistic vocabulary based on the image itself was stymied and stunted, with a great deal of the films that used that vocabulary actually lost. Today, people like preservationist Scott MacDonald are trying to raise awareness of comparable loss, especially for the less recognized aspects of film such as the avant-garde on 16mm film, and others, like Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino, are making sure the saved and restored 35mm films are seen and appreciated—be it at home in digital form or in the theater, either digitally or on film. Yet it is still possible that we will wake up a decade from now to discover that our move to the digital also created a great loss, one as nearly impossible to recover as the loss of silent films has proven to be. (49-50)

Slightly more than a decade has now passed since I wrote that, in The DVD Revolution: Movies, Culture, & Technology, and my concern has only grown. Not only are we allowing the digital to push aside older technologies in movies, but other areas are suffering the same fate. Even in education itself, we are allowing digital aids to replace others, even when the old and the new actually work best when used in conjunction with each other. There is even a push to replace the teacher with a digital interface rather than allowing that interface to work with the teacher and under teacher control.


A multigraph.

Recently, I have been reading Donal Harris’s new book, On Company Time: American Modernism in the Big Magazines. There is an unstated corollary to its argument, that the rise of the magazine a century (and a little more) ago parallels the rise of the website today. In addition to much else, Harris writes about the technology of the magazines, focusing, for example, on the importance of items like the multigraph to W.E.B. Du Bois and The Crisis. Even I, who grew us as a printer, have never seen a multigraph. I would very much like to, for it seems to have been, among other things, an ancestor to the office copier. I could learn a great deal, I am sure, just from looking at one.


A Vandercook proof press.

Years ago, when I was teaching Graphic Arts at an Iowa boarding school, I scoured small-town junk shops and print shops for an old proof press that I could use in place of the big platen press the school had—and that I considered too dangerous for the students to use. I found treasures everywhere I looked but I had to ignore most, having little money to spend and a specific need. I ended up with a Vandercook proof press and a memory of moldering antiques, examples of technologies bypassed by the 1970s.

Our colleges and universities also still house a great number of artifacts of outdated technologies, including (just in terms of media) old records, reel-to-reel tapes, videotapes and 8mm and 16mm movies—and the devices for actualizing them. We need to be aware of what these things are as we start to clear house in our digital age—and to ensure that we are not throwing away items that are, in fact, not only good teaching tools but priceless to researchers, either today or sometime in the future. Writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education last week, Ann E. Michael makes the case that we need to ‘save the stacks’ of our campus libraries. She’s right, but the need extends far beyond the books and magazines once the heart of our libraries. It even extends beyond the artifacts of media that are my own immediate concern. In almost every field, there is detritus of the past that, with a little polishing and a bit of context, can become the jewels of the future, inspiring, teaching and even leading both students and scholars.

Just for fun, here’s Michael Flanders and Donald Swann on developments in musical playback:

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